The overlap (or fusion) between genre and “art” cinema, and the language in which we discuss them, is one of the defining traits of contemporary cinephilia and criticism. Not that that’s anything new; as with most things in our endlessly reiterative culture, it’s an accentuation of long-established trends and traditions, novel only because our perpetually plugged-in state allows it to proliferate wildly. What’s more novel is that this fusion has been happening at the level of production, with plentiful festival laurels to show for it. The “New French Extremity” wild bunch, Hong Kong vets, Danish morons, and the South Koreans have all been well-serviced by the fest-circuit daisy chain, and while the merit of their respective efforts naturally varies, there’s a necessarily larger question that looms. If “art” cinema—however imperfectly, vaguely, debatably defined—still represents an acme of what we think cinema in toto can achieve, what are these variously feted filmmakers bringing to it?
It’s unfashionable to ask questions of value in a climate that disdains the notion of the canon while smuggling its masterpieces in through the back door. And it’s filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho who make the question all the more difficult. The enforced ambiguity and inconclusiveness of Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host’s (2006) broad critique of American neo-imperialism indicate that Bong is as prone as any of his contemporaries to high-concept frameworks that, in aiming to give genre dross thematic and artistic weight, more often than not betray genre cinema’s real artistry by importing extrinsic dollops of “meaning.” But Bong makes his films breathe in the interstitial spaces of character and atmosphere, in the comic and dramatic rhythms he establishes within and between sequences, in his unlikely combination of screwball vigour and unforced, often breathtaking visual-dramatic beauty: e.g., the slow-motion tracking shot along the embankment in Memories, the slow Molotov cocktail toss in The Host, the refracted opening-closing shot loop of Mother (2009).
Bong’s artistry goes far beyond genre-flick chops, absent the kind of tony aestheticism that Park Chan-wook lavishes on his perfumed depravities (and this despite some comparably uncomfortable violent/sexual subject matter in Memories and Mother). The question now is what else he can do with it. Bong is better than genre precisely because he remains humbly within it; and while all filmmakers are confined to their own interests and inclinations, the well goes dry on the genre boys at far greater speed. With Bong’s upcoming jump to high-profile, English-language international co-productions, it will be interesting to see whether he can grow further, or whether his talents will yield little more than impeccably made, intermittently rousing dead ends.