The Amazonian Swamp

Amazon Prime Video is anything but Prime; and probably most people have it because they subscribe to Amazon’s Prime service for free and expedited delivery of packages they bought but don’t really need. When you load it and look at the interface, you really are in a jungle, and it can be tricky to hack through the vegetation to discover hidden treasure. But be wary, don’t be drawn from the path, for there are dangers hiding in plain sight…

What’s that, a film about a man with memory loss, hunting some killers, who writes notes to himself on his body, and Guy Pearce is in it…? But no, sadly it’s not Memento, it’s Memory, another geriaction vehicle for Liam Neeson, who doesn’t let Alzheimer’s stop him from outwitting the FBI… Don’t do it people, that way lies madness. But hold on, what’s that flickering in the clearing ahead? Oh No! It’s ANOTHER geriaction vehicle, Samaritan (he’s the good one, geddit?), this time with Sylvester Stallone as a retired and reclusive superhero dragged out of retirement to ‘save the city’… I kid you not.

Look, I enjoy a good Friday night popcorn flick as much as anyone, but this is thin stuff… and, worst of all…BORING!

Fortunately, there are some hidden gems, even though, admittedly, some of them come with hidden traps.

I’m going to concentrate on a couple of brilliant South Korean films to illustrate a hidden gem, and a hidden gem with a trap. For many people, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite was an eye-opener and the first South Korean film they had seen. But South Korea arguably produce the highest quality films in the world and what makes their films so unique is their originality, complexity, and ability to span a multitude of genres. They are some of the most aesthetically pleasing, emotionally captivating and well-written films, because you never know what you’re going to get. They are unpredictable, genre-bending and masterfully crafted. 

The Wailing (Na Hong-Jin, 2016)

This is the third feature film from Na Hong-Jin, after The Chaser (2008) and The Yellow Sea (2010), both terrific films in their own right. In a small rural village outside Seoul, a series of grisly murders shakes the community to its core. Common among the crimes are perpetrators entranced in ‘fugue’ states, marked by a bizarre skin affliction. Further investigation begins to link the crimes to a mysterious Japanese traveller. The deeper the investigation goes, however, the closer the police and townsfolk come to staring into a void of supernatural horror, in which faith is questioned, the terror of the unknowable becomes reality, and the darkness of the heart is revealed.

The most immediately striking element of The Wailing is its masterful grip on tone, constantly swaying back and forth between mystery and police procedural, abject horror and almost slapstick levels of comedy, while always feeling cohesive. The key to this balancing act is leading man Kwak Do-won as Jong-Goo, the decent, if somewhat bumbling, police sergeant who gets embroiled in the mystery.

Driven as much by crazy rumours, dreams, superstition and xenophobic scapegoating as by hard facts, Jong-goo is quick to persecute the limping Japanese recluse (Jun Kunimura). As Jong-goo’s own daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) falls ill and undergoes a radical change in personality, the cop is persuaded to turn to a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) for help, even as a trainee Catholic deacon joins the investigative team, and a woman (Chun Woo-hee) occasionally offers cryptic commentary from the sidelines.

And so multiple theme intertwine: the nature of evil, faith, belief and spirituality, xenophobia… and the darkness inherent in humanity.

But all this is handled nimbly: the film is a crazy thrill-ride that will keep you on the edge of your seat to the end.

Mother (Bong Joon-Ho -2010)

South Korean star Kim Hye-ja plays a middle-aged single woman eking out a living as a herbalist and unlicensed acupuncturist. She is quiet, withdrawn, but with a steely determination to survive, which she deploys not for herself, but on behalf of her twentysomething son Do-joon (Bin Won), who has learning difficulties (pictured). He is gentle, childlike but moody, and has been bullied all his life. Bong’s film exerts an awful fascination as we see Do-joon following a pretty, frightened schoolgirl home down a dark alley one night. Without explanation, the director cuts to Do-joon’s arrival home later in a confused state. Later, the police arrive, and arrest Do-joon for the murder of the schoolgirl. The Mother (she is given no other name) then devotes herself to the greatest challenge any mother can face: she must get her son off a murder charge, and also turn detective and find the real culprit. Soon she is making discoveries and embarrassing the police in the process.

The story plays to Bong’s strengths, as he interweaves thriller, random acts of chaos and humorous elements. There are turns you won’t see coming, but the plot twists are secondary to the human element. As the Mother, Hye-Ja Kim is magnetic, holding all the complexities of motherhood in her performance. She can move from steely to vulnerable within the same shot, and her courageous performance makes Mother both an effective genre exercise and one of Bong’s best films. It ends with an absolutely killer twist, delivered with the utmost subtlety.

The word ‘Hitchcockian’ must have the master of suspense spinning in this grave, and it is almost worthless: it is thrown at every would-be mystery film, as a way of awarding it a level of gravitas it usually doesn’t deserve. However, in the case of Bong Joon-Ho’s terrific film, the term is deserved. And, of course, Norman Bates did point out that a man’s best friend is his Mother.

The film can be found on Amazon, but I did warn you to be wary. Amazon Prime Video hosts a number of premium channels, some of them very good, such as MUBI and BFI Player. Indeed, it might be a good way of subscribing to these channels if you want to: the monthly fee is charged to your Amazon account. Mother is on the StudioCanal Channel which costs £4.99 per month. But you do get a 7 day free trial, so you can watch the film and cancel the subscription at no cost. As long as you remember.

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