Among the more famous directors of the film movement known as New Korean Cinema, familiarity with Hollywood tropes and Western entertainment is common. Directors like Kim Ji-woon, Park Chan-wook, and Bong Joon-ho made their artistic debuts in the late 1990s in South Korea, when heavily politicized cinema was just beginning to taper off to make room for the more profitable and internationally marketable Hollywood blockbuster style (evidenced by films like Shiri, released in 1999). Many of these filmmakers also grew up influenced by Western media, which was made available to them by way of Hollywood films shown in theatres, as well as American military radio and television stations. Bong Joon-ho in particular frequently claims to have been a true media junkie. As Christina Klein notes in her article, The AFKN nexus: US military broadcasting and New Korean Cinema, “[i]n interviews Bong has described a childhood and adolescence spent in front of the TV […] As a child he kept detailed schedules of AFKN's weekly film broadcasts and, according to Jung Ji-youn, 'he succeeded in watching nearly all of them.'” (Klein) It is no surprise then, that elements of Hollywood style can be clearly seen throughout Bong's body of work. However, what makes this director especially interesting to watch is how he seamlessly blends Korean culture and politics into films obviously influenced by the classical Hollywood style. Toying with conceptions of genre and bringing a distinctly Korean sensibility to the traditionally Hollywood-produced blockbuster film, Bong Joon-ho stands out as a pioneer of transnational cinema and a champion for the hybridization of financially successful blockbusters and arthouse or politicized cinema. The two films where this hybridity is most apparent are his second feature film Memories of Murder, released in 2003, and his 2009 film, Mother.
Memories of Murder is a decidedly tense and somber film, following the true story of South Korea's first recorded serial killer in the late 1980s and the eventual failure of the investigation to identify the suspect. On the surface, the film appears very much like any hard-boiled detective story. The audience views the action from the perspective of the detectives and their coworkers at the police station. Detective Park and Cho's methods are questionable and often violent, but we can see that they are driven by a desire to solve the case and put away a heinous criminal. Their frustration is palpable and causes them to cling desperately to any potential lead, sometimes resulting in antagonistic outbursts and negative effects on the case's progress. There are multiple twists and turns throughout the narrative, as the detectives appear to hone in on potential suspects, only to lose them or find evidence proving them innocent. These are all familiar tropes to thriller fans, and they are especially present in classical Hollywood films based on the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. The unsettling sadistic pleasure Detective Cho gets in torturing and intimidating potential suspects is mirrored in the darkly determined characters of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, who think nothing of “roughing up” witnesses to get information. The building complications in the case and the growing distance between the detectives and their quarry are also elements of mystery or thriller films that most audiences are accustomed to, however there is typically a satisfying conclusion where the suspect is definitively caught and sentenced, which reconciles the tension and allows the viewer a reprieve. No such moment occurs in Memories of Murder, which ends with the confirmation that not only is the killer still alive and free, but he has returned to at least one of the scenes of his murders to relish the memory of his past crimes. While it is not impossible for a Hollywood film to end so unresolved, it is certainly not the norm for dramatic blockbusters. A villain may walk away from his crimes unscathed, as seen with Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, but his identity is clearly exposed for the audience, and usually at least one of his pursuers. There is a kind of comfort in the knowing the appearance of evil (even if it evades justice) rather than the faceless, invisible spectre of rape and death that presides over Memories of Murder and leaves the audience with an unsettling disquiet at the film's conclusion.
A similar American story would make its way to film four years after Memories of Murder; David Fincher's Zodiac also follows a case of unsolved serial murders, this time in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The production of Zodiac was notable in comparison to Memories of Murder in that Hollywood studios were reluctant to give it a chance precisely because of its unresolved ending and abundance of dialogue, proving that it is atypical for a Hollywood film to end without a definitive conclusion, especially if there is not much action in it (Entertainment Weekly). But even in a similar story, the tone of the narrative is very different. Zodiac focuses heavily on the characters involved in the murder investigation and the havoc the case wreaks on their lives as a result of their individual obsessions with it. While the murders remain unsolved at the end of the film, the disintegration of the case itself and the ultimate failure of the police to find a suspect and solve the murders was not quite the focus of the plot, as it is with Memories of Murder. From such a comparison, we can see how Memories of Murder is thematically different from an American film with a similar narrative like Zodiac. As Christina Klein observes in her article, Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho, “Bong does not simply mimic Hollywood. Rather, he appropriates and reworks genre conventions, using them as a framework for exploring and critiquing South Korean social and political issues. Bong reconfigures Hollywood's conventions so that they become tools for grappling with Korean questions.” (Klein) The difference between the Hollywood treatment of the police in murder mystery or detective films and the Korean treatment in similar genres is crucial to understanding Bong's social commentary in Memories of Murder. The South Korean social and political issues addressed by the film can be boiled down to a general distrust and lack of confidence in the police and the political system at large. With its long history of civil war, military dictatorships, and the passionate struggle for democracy, South Korea's attitude toward entities like the police force is understandably chilly. Many films within the New Korean Cinema movement (especially the films of Bong Joon-ho) share this critique of the police force, and the inability of the Korean government to solve problems and provide a suitable infrastructure for the Korean people. This critical lens is almost entirely missing in similar Hollywood films. The failure of the detectives to catch the Zodiac killer, for example, is not due to a bumbling police force, poor communication, or a lack of adequate technology, but the slipperiness and intelligence of the suspect, who taunts the police with coded messages and continuously eludes them. In Memories of Murder, because the killings take place in a small, rural community, the audience can easily surmise that if only the police were better organized, less prone to infighting and bursts of violence against innocent people, the murders may well have been solved. Joseph Jonghyun Jeon notes how Memories of Murder also speaks to the anxieties of a changing Korea in his article, Memories of Memories: Historicity, Nostalgia, and Archive in Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder, saying “the film interweaves a criminal narrative with an implicitly retrospective meditation on modern Korea. The period represented in the film is an absolutely crucial moment in modern Korean history, coinciding with the end of Chǒn Tu-hwan's military dictatorship in 1988; the appearance of violent crimes in the sleepy rural villages in which the film is set serves as a synecdoche for the vexing emergence of Korean modernity in general.” (Jeon) Watching Memories of Murder with these socio-political filters in mind, it is clear that Bong Joon-ho is not merely attempting to duplicate a Hollywood thriller like that of Zodiac or Silence of the Lambs in a Korean setting to create a financially successful film, but to engage with Korean audiences through a format that is both accessible and entertaining to them.
The other film which displays Bong Joon-ho's familiarity with Hollywood style and deliberate focus on Korean society and culture is Mother, released in 2009. Starring two of South Korea's most well-known actors, Mother follows the story of a single, aging mother and her mentally handicapped son Do-joon, who is accused of the murder of a young girl. When the police speak to witnesses and find evidence that Do-joon was following the murdered girl on the night of her death, the case appears to be open and shut, and Do-joon is thrown in jail. Mother (whose name we never learn, her entire identity is Do-joon's mother, a perpetual maternal figure) then makes it her sole quest to find the real killer and exonerate her son, a goal which consumes her and ultimately drives her to murder the only man who knows the truth. Like Memories of Murder, Mother is fraught with tension and an unsettling sense of determination. Mother's plight is sympathetic, but the lengths to which she goes to protect her son are nevertheless shocking and unexpected. In terms of its relation to Hollywood, the tone of this film is very much like that of a Hitchcock psychological thriller. Similar to famous Hitchcock films like Vertigo, Psycho, and Strangers on a Train, there are not many startling moments that cause the viewer to jump out of their seat, but they are always on the edge of it, consistently expecting something terrible to happen in the next scene. The pressure builds and builds until something has to give, and the break is usually a moment of extreme and surprising violence or a narrative revelation. The few outbursts of violence and surprise that do occur are then portrayed as almost cathartic, releasing the built-up tension like steam from a valve. Mother could also be compared to other Hollywood films which focus on the terrifying results of a mother driven past her breaking point, like Carrie or Mommie Dearest, though these films are more of an indictment of individual, unstable mothers than the institution of motherhood in general. Again, as with Memories of Murder, the similarities between Mother and its Hollywood counterparts are present, but ultimately only skin-deep, as the themes Mother speaks to are much more relevant for Korean audiences.
The elements of Mother which are distinctly Korean begin with the casting. A fact that would be lost on American audiences unfamiliar with Korean film and television and yet adds an additional layer of richness to the story is that Mother is played by Kim Hye-ja, a very famous Korean character actress who is well-known for her roles as the sweet and kindly mother figure in soap operas and television dramas. In American terms, this would be akin to June Cleaver or Carol Brady going on a desperate quest to save her son which slowly drives her to madness and concludes with her committing brutal murder and arson and finally, choosing to forget it all. Clearly a darkly playful nod to the cultural knowledge of Korean audiences, Mother's casting is the simplest way to observe the ways in which Bong Joon-ho is speaking directly to local audiences. But of course, the hints do not stop there, as one of the prominent elements of the plot involves Mother's occupation as a kind of herbalist, selling medicinal herbs and performing unlicensed acupuncture. Though herbal medicine and acupuncture are currently enjoying rising popularity in the United States, they are not nearly as common as they are in Asian countries, and so the familiarity with which Mother speaks to others about her medicines and acupuncture skills may still seem unusual to American audiences. The acupuncture also provides Mother an out at the film's conclusion. As Nataša Ďurovlčová and Garrett Stewart describe the moment of forgetting in their article, Amnesias of Murder: Mother, “[h]er witchery is finally turned on herself as temporary exorcism. Having stabbed to the core of her pain, she can now throw herself into the collective revelry.” (Ďurovlčová/Stewart) Mother's knowledge of acupuncture gives her an escape, a way to erase the terrible things she has done and remove any awful memories from her mind, and it is a method that only she knows. Similarly, only Korean audiences can intuitively “know” certain things about Mother that make it a much more complex and layered film. Such intimate cultural knowledge is very important in Mother, as well as in all of Bong Joon-ho's films.
Finally, the “elephant in the room” of the film is the co-dependent relationship between Mother and Do-joon, and the subsequent condemnation of the institution of motherhood as it is understood in South Korea. Mother is an overwhelming presence in Do-joon's life. He rarely seems to go anywhere without her being with him or at least being in contact with him. She feeds him, always noting which foods he should eat more of to maintain his health and increase his energy and virility. She provides him with medicine constantly, and even observes his urine as though checking to see if it is a healthy amount, the right color, etc. The two even sleep in the same bed together, with Do-joon often curled into the fetal position against Mother's side, clinging to her breast like an infant. It is clear that Mother's attachment to Do-joon is extreme, and yet her actions are sympathetic and understandable. Upon learning that in a period of extreme poverty and deep depression, Mother attempted to poison Do-joon and herself when Do-joon was five years old, her subsequent fawning over him and constant concerns as to his health finally make sense. In light of these facts, the viewer does not necessarily blame Mother for her enveloping love of her son, but the events of the film do give us serious pause and make one question the value of a mother's unconditional love for her child, upheld in many societies as the epitome of human connection. The relationship between this concept of motherly love and Korean society is where Bong Joon-ho lays his critiques. According to Confucian philosophy, a woman's role in society was dictated by the male figures in her life. In one of the texts of Confucianism, the Book of Rites, also known as the "Lî Kî," it is written, “the woman follows the man. In her youth she follows her father and elder brother; when married, she follows her husband; when her husband is dead, she follows her son.” (Lî Kî) This view, though outdated, is very likely still the norm for the middle-aged and elderly in many Asian countries. As the tradition in South Korea is for mothers to dote on their sons, do anything and everything to protect and help them, Mother serves as a frightening answer to the question, “how far would the sweetest, kindest, most unassuming Korean mother go for her child?” Though the trend of mothers bending over backwards to please and accommodate their children is certainly not limited to South Korea, it remains an important piece of the culture that can be analyzed and exposed as potentially unhealthy and even toxic. Bong Joon-ho uses the trappings of the Hollywood thriller and drama, especially those elements utilized by Alfred Hitchcock, to engage Korean audiences with this issue and pose the question, “how far is too far when it comes to protecting our children?”
In the hands of another director, Memories of Murder could easily have been much less complex, much more singular in its aim, but because it was made by Bong Joon-ho, whose media-saturated childhood made him a veritable encyclopedia of film language and aesthetics, it combines globally recognizable Hollywood production values with a specific and local Korean sensibility. Similarly, Mother could be a straightforward thriller were it not for the insightful touches like the casting of Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin that Bong brought to the production. These films not only stand on their own as exquisitely made pieces of cinema, utilizing stunning cinematography and production design, but they also serve as cultural critiques for Korean viewers to engage with. But Memories of Murder and Mother are not the only films by Bong Joon-ho which illustrate the way the director infuses Hollywood style and aesthetics with a distinct “Koreanness.” This quality is more of a trend throughout his body of work, beginning with Barking Dogs Never Bite and gaining speed with films like The Host, whose socio-political commentary is much more overt and ingrained in the narrative. However, Memories of Murder and Mother are especially notable because of their subtlety, because the stories they tell do not necessarily have to take place in South Korea, and yet in the capable hands of director Bong, they still manage to speak directly and intimately with a Korean audience as well as a global one. Bong truly makes this look easy, deftly moving between cultural codes and filmmaking styles without missing a beat and without any of it feeling forced or insincere, but in reality it is quite a feat. Of all the directors within New Korean Cinema, Bong Joon-ho appears to be one of the most dedicated to this kind of hybrid filmmaking, never relying too much on either Korean or Hollywood style and themes but always finding a happy medium between the two. His films truly act as a cultural melting pot, combining elements from different cultures to create something new, refreshing, and exciting that all can enjoy.
"Book IX. The Kiâo Theh Sang."The Lî Kî (The Book of Rites). Trans. James Legge. Sacred Texts. Web. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/cfu/liki/liki09.htm>.
Ďurovlčová, Nataša, and Garrett Stewart. "Amnesias of Murder: Mother." Film Quarterly 64.2 (2010): 64-68. JSTOR. Web.
Jeon, Joseph J. "Memories of Memories: Historicity, Nostalgia, and Archive in Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder." Cinema Journal 51.1 (2011): 74-95. Project MUSE. Web.
Klein, Christina. "The AFKN Nexus: US Military Broadcasting and New Korean Cinema." Transnational Cinemas 3.1 (2012): 19-39. Web.
Klein, Christina. "Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, Or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho." American Quarterly 60.4 (2008): 871-98.Project MUSE. Web.
Svetkey, Benjamin. "King of Pain." EW.com. Entertainment Weekly, 23 Feb. 2007. Web.