Monsters and Politics: An Appreciation of Bong Joon-Ho
Bong Joon-Ho has is one of my favourite directors working in cinema today, a South Korean filmmaker who has a playful approach to genre, and is unashamedly enthralled by Hollywood mechanics. In reviving and intermingling tired, moribund genre tropes to imaginative effect such as the crime picture, melodrama, horror and science fiction, the films of Boon Joon-Ho offer a unique perspective, engaging in a wry social commentary on Korean family dynamics (often featuring the struggles of a lower or middle class protagonist), politics and society.
His terrific 2006 film The Host is a worthy successor to the Godzilla movies of the 50s and 60s, mixing the giddy thrills of a creature feature with moving domestic drama and a witty socio-political slant. Similar to Godzilla’s powerful metaphor of Hiroshima and the aftershocks of nuclear fallout, the film is a political parable dressed up in B-movie theatrics. Beginning with an American scientist asking his Korean colleague to pour bottles of dirty formaldehyde down the drain, this satirical setup disturbingly recalls the similar true case in 2000 of a US Air Force employee in Seoul, who asked his colleagues to dispose of the toxic chemical, contaminating local water sources. Joon-ho has denied claims that his film is anti-American, but I agree with him that the film is as much of a sly environmental metaphor as it is a political critique of the Korean government and their relationship with the United States. A superb monster movie.
Joon-Ho is dealing with a different type of monster in his earlier film Memories of Murder (2003), a superlative blackly comic serial killer procedural based on a real life set of unsolved murders in the 80s. The film, a curious mixture of the forensic camera of David Fincher and the suburban surrealism of David Lynch, offers no easy emotional or narrative resolution, and the bumbling incompetence of the investigation is used to show wider corruptive governmental forces and societal uneasiness of the period.
The political subtext is even more subtle in his most recent theatrical release Mother (2009), a wonderfully controlled Hitchcockian thriller/murder mystery about a parent trying to prove the innocence of her mentally handicapped son, who is accused of a horrific crime. The film seems more concerned on the surface with the politics of family relationships but there is still a sly critique of the police system, as the complacent, unresponsive attitude of the criminal authorities forces the titular mother to become her own amateur detective and seek answers. Mother is is a film of odd, arresting images, plot twists and a mesmeric central performance from veteren Korean actress Kim Hye-ja. A wonderful movie.
Horror as Art: Five Essential Cinematic Masterpieces That I Love.
Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)
This cheapie psycho-sexual shocker by Jacques Tourneur has the hokeist of B-movie plots. Newly married Serbian immigrant Irena believes that she has inherited an ancient curse that will turn her into a cat if sexually aroused. Tourneur is a master of misdirection and he shows very little in the way of explicit violence and sex, but film is bathed in a swirling noir atmosphere that poses unsettling, ambiguous questions about female sexuality. There are so many memorable moments to choose from, not least the strangely seductive sight of Simon Simone’s Irena scratching the sofa to reveal claw marks. But the outstanding set piece still remains the siege in the swimming pool. The scene is a masterwork of psychological terror, and like the best horror, is never explicit. The suggestive power lies in the judicious editing, ambient roars, and play of shadows on the wall: Simple, effective, scary as hell.
Eyes Without A Face (Georges Franju, 1960)
Georges Franju gorgeous, visually stunning tale of scalpels, surgery and obsession is one of the most poetic horror movies that I have ever seen. This influential Gaelic-horror concerns Professor Genessier, a plastic surgeon who kidnaps young woman in order to find a suitable face transplant for his disfigured daughter. Aside from a few gruesome scenes of surgical gore, this isn’t a horror movie in the conventional sense, but rather a chilly, immaculately framed piece of gothic cinema. It is hard to think of a more startling image in the annals of horror than Edith Scob’s pale eyes peering from behind a white mask, a figure at once eerie and tragic. The film would find a modern echo in one of my cinematic highlights of last year, Pedro Almodover’s outrageously entertaining The Skin I Live In.
The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979)
The Brood is the best of David Cronenberg’s early run of smart, gory body horrors in the 70s, following the brilliant bodily metaphors of Shivers and Rabid. A chilling paedophobic horror, This tale about the progeny from hell features the scariest children you’re ever likely to meet, and stars Oliver Reed stars as a mad doctor of psycho-plasmic therapy who encourages his troubled patient Nola to manifest her inner depression as physical symptoms with awry results. This is Cronenberg at his icky, cerebral best, and continues his themes of psychology, sex and the body in revolt. The film also features one of the most terrifying set pieces of 70s horror, a horrific murder in a classroom filled with children. Cronenberg would go on to direct bolder, and more refined work such as Videodrome, The Fly, and Dead Ringers, but The Brood remains one of his most visceral, intellectual and terrifying horrors.
Tenebrae (Dario Argento, 1982)
Notoriously banned in Britain under the Video Nasties act, Dario Argento’s Tenebrae is an artful, lurid giallo masterpiece. A hyper-violent mystery thriller about a serial killer who is influenced by the lurid pulp novels of a trashy American crime writer, the film poses both as a sly, post-modern critique of the morality of the horror genre, and the label of misogyny that is constantly hurdled at the director. Dubious dubbing is a given, but Argento’s meta-slasher is also stunningly shot, with the bare white walls which frequently appear in the film a perfect canvas for arterial sprays of blood worthy of Jackson Pollock. Tenebrae is a sly, staggeringly influential piece of giallo cinema, from the beautifully staged murders composed with a painterly eye (see the astonishing tracking shot early on in the movie) to the blistering, avant-rock soundtrack by Goblin. Along with the nightmarish acid fantasia of Suspiria, this is one of Argento’s most essential works.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)
David Lynch is one of few contemporary filmmakers who is able to conjure up images of such disturbing power that they penetrate into the darkest recesses of the mind, and remain there long after the scene dissolves. His most frightening and nightmarish work and the film that edges the closest to pure horror is also one of his most underrated. Dividing fans and critics on its initial release, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is both a prequel and bookend to his landmark television series. This is Lynch’s vision of the high school years as hell, getting to the troubled heart of Laura Palmer that is only merely hinted at it in the television series. A bizarre David Bowie cameo withstanding, TP:FWWM is a film of extraordinary images that crawl under the skin, and Bob remains one of the most frightening boogeymen ever committed to horror celluloid. The film also features regular Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti’s greatest work who contributes a swirling, droning, jazz inflected score. One of the most underrated horror movies of the 1990s.
The Films of David Lynch
A non-chronological, arbitrary list of the best cinematic things I’ve seen this year. (Subjective, of course)
A non-chronological, arbitrary list of the best things I’ve seen this year.
Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)
This is the best horror movie of the decade so far, a visceral, lacerating genre-bending film which begins as domestic drama, merges into a hit man thriller before unexpectedly veering into outright Wicker Man territory. This is a startling, brutal and impressive piece of filmmaking that surprises and scares at every turn.
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
With a career defining, icon-in-the-making performance from Ryan Gosling, gorgeous cinematography, and the best soundtrack of the year, Refn’s cool minimalist thriller was one of the film highlights of 2011. A cinematic exercise in style, form and genre, there might be little substance here beneath the shiny hood of Driver’s car, but it remains a taut, pulpy delight of movie, with wonderful supporting turns.
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, 2011)
Sick and twisted fun from my favourite pop trash art-house maverick. This is essentially Almodovar tackling the horror genre on his own uncatergorisable terms. It is an oddball fable, a mad scientist thriller via melodrama, Hitchcock, with lashings of Cronenbergian body horror. Antonio Banderas is on terrific form as a manically deranged plastic surgeon, but the real breakout star is the radiant Elena Anaya who gives a fierce and devastating performance as his beautiful captive. The Skin I Live In shows a master in his prime, in control and firing on all cylinders.
Attack The Block (Joe Cornish, 2011)
This lovingly crafted homage to John Carpenter’s early icky genre cinema was a real breath of fresh air, a comedy horror set in the tower block environs of South London. This gooey alien invasion yarn has energy to spare and is shot with real panache by first time director Cornish. The snappy, street-level dialogue and social commentary felt authentic, and the action is funny and furious, moving at a steamroll pace. A terrific young cast, a genuinely moving and triumphant denouement, and a clanking, eerily banging soundtrack by Basement Jaxx make this a cult British classic in the making.
Super 8 (J.J Abrams, 2011)
This is the most fun I’ve had in the cinema all year, a sweet coming of age drama that also happens to be a monster movie. Super 8 definitely feels like a film of two distinct halves. J.J Abrams’ semi-autobiographical love letter to the movies of Spielberg and his own 70s childhood is at its best in it’s opening movements. These early scenes are intimate and touching, showing a group of misfit friends hanging out, making films, bonded by their love of cinema while mourning dead parents, dealing with insecurities, and having crushes on girls. Following a spectacular, nerve-shattering train crash, the latter half is filled with much more generic thrills, and the final reveal of the monster is sadly disappointing. But this is a minor gripe in a film with a big beating heart, and a wonderful set of performances from the ragtag group of kids. Super 8 envelopes you in a warm nostalgic hug.
Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)
Duncan Jones’ previous film Moon was a real stunner, a science fiction space-chamber piece with a magnificent performance from the criminally underrated Sam Rockwell. This second feature is not quite in the same league but remains a nifty clever sci-fi gem with an interesting central premise (think Inception meets Groundhog Day), a winning performance from Jake Gyllenhaal and taut, breakneck direction. And as long as you don’t examine the plot too closely (there are holes aplenty), this is still a smart, swift thrill ride.
Films still to watch in 2011
Melancholia, Hugo, Submarine, Bridesmaids, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Tree Of Life, Take Shelter.
Looking forward to in 2012
Killer Joe, Prometheus, The Artist, Dark Shadows, The Dark Knight Rises, The Innkeepers, The Avengers, John Carter, The Bourne Legacy, Looper, Frankenweenie, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Django Unchained.
On Heavy Rotation: What I listened to in 2011
This is not a definitive best of list but here are a few songs which have been in constant rotation on my stereo in 2011.
White Denim – Drug
This is another deranged guitar workout from a brilliantly unpredictable band. I never know where these guys will venture next. The melding of rock and roll, folk, hillbilly, country, psychedelia, and jazz, with a complete disregard for traditional song structures is thrilling.
Clams Casino – All I Need
Stellar beat music from the best hip-hop producer of the moment. This is Endtroducing 2.0. The ambient snares, crashing drums and synth waves recall the genius of DJ Shadow in his prime. Astonishing stuff.
New Look – Nap on the Bow
This is the most convincing synthesis of indie and the r’n’b aesthetic I’ve heard all year. The skittering lo-fi electronic production shows a clear debt to the early noughties genius of Timbaland and the Neptunes.
Frank Ocean – Thinking About You
The best new artist of 2011. This guy can do no wrong, whether he is singing over an instrumental of The Eagles’ Hotel California (Sacrilege! I hear you cry) or crooning on this minimal r’n’b gem. The bat-shit crazy video is also worth checking out. Did David Lynch direct this thing?
Jamie XX & Gil Scott Heron – Running
Glitch hop, deconstructed dubstep, future garage, mutant 2-step. I’m not one for boxes. (Plus I really hate those genre names!) But whatever you call this, We’re New Here is one of my albums of the year. The incomparable vocal of Gil Scott Heron hovers like a ghostly siren call and haunts the empty spaces of Jamie XX’s bombastic production.
Cut Copy – Need You Now
Need You Now is a pristine slab of shimmering synth-pop melodrama from Australia’s answer to New Order. I love the way the song slowly builds till it is practically swelling with guitars and electronics. This is euphoria distilled in a pop song.
Friendly Fires – Hurting
The combination of Daft Punk + sunny boyband harmonies could be ghastly but actually proves pretty damn irresistible. The ear-worm hook of the year.
Kendrick Lemar - Fuck Your Ethnicity
The standout cut from Section 80, one of my favourite hip-hop albums of 2011. This is lyrically potent and possibly my favourite beat of the year. It’s been a mighty good year for underground hip-hop.
The Rapture - How Deep Is Your Love
I was lukewarm about their last album but The Rapture returned after a long gestation with this stunner. Their disco punk sound is re-energised with four to the floor beats, pounding house piano and saxophone blasts.
Kuedo – Visioning Shared Tomorrows
This beautiful Vangelis-esque aural dreamscape conjures up images of a wet, drizzly dystopia or a lonely Wall-E scouring a deserted planet for scraps. Surely a soundtrack to the new Blade Runner sequel?
The Horrors – Still Life
Sounds like the 80s. Also sounds very good in my car.
The Weeknd – The Morning
Prince would be proud of The Weeknd, who is singlehandedly bringing sexy, debauchery and weirdness back to r’n’b. The man is an enigma much like his druggy, hypnotic brand of nocturnal soul. The swirling ambience and echoing guitars on this track are mind-blowing. Brilliant video, too.
Rustie – Hover Traps
Rustie is one of the most imaginative producers out there. The album Glass Swords is a bonkers electronic odyssey, with prog guitars and synths that burble and dart around like Mario Kart gone rave. This is music from the outer-reaches.
Joe Goddard Feat Valentina - Gabrielle
Phenomenal vocal, phenomenal hook, phenomenal production. Did I mention I quite like this? Sick.
Beyonce – Countdown
No argument. Hands down. This is the best pop single of the year. It’s inventive too. Military time drums, surging horns, rushing piano keys, and arguably the best use of numerology in a pop song since The Jackson 5’s ABC.
Other albums/songs on rotation in 2011
Drake – Take Care, Clint Martinez – Drive OST, Hudson Mohawke – Satin Panthers EP, James Blake – Self Titled, Wild Beasts – Smother, Azari & III – Into The Night (Single), Nicholas Jaar – Don’t Break My Love EP, SBTRKT – Self Titled, Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See, The Antlers – Burst Apart, Zomby – Dedication, Jamie Woon – Night Air (Single), TUnE-yaRds – w h o k i l l, Lana Del Rey – Video Games EP, TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light, Jay Z and Kanye West – Watch The Throne, M83 – Midnight City (Single), Thundercat – The Golden Age Of The Apocalypse, Bangs and Works Volume 1 – Compilation, James Pants – Self Titled, AraabMuzik – Electronic Dreams, ASAP Rocky – LiveLoveA, Metronomy – The Look (Single), Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine, Young Montana - Limerence, Com Truise - Cathode Girls (Single), Hercules & Love Affair - My House (Single)