These two short films by Bong Joon Ho, one made at the very beginning of his career and the other at a moment when his global reputation was rising, address social and ethical problems that may be found in his feature films. We are familiar with the ways Bong draws attention to issues of social hierarchy and class in Snowpiercer (2013) and Parasite (2019), as well as the ethics of guilt and rage in Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and Mother (2009). Incoherence was produced while the twenty-five-year-old director was a student at the Korean Academy of Fine Arts and here one already senses the director’s penchant for ironically depicting men who occupy positions of authority. A public prosecutor, so drunk that he struggles to return home, rails against jaywalking and public urination. A professor who looks at a Penthouse magazine in his office teaches Adorno’s theory of the authoritarian personality to students and later grouses about the need for individuals to control their desires.
Influenza depicts the plight of an unemployed man who has given in to despair and turns to violent crime to survive. Mr. Cho represents one of the victims of the financial crisis of 1997 that left millions of workers unemployed and induced a sense of individual malaise that spread like a virus. Socially demoted within Korea’s social hierarchy, Mr. Cho remains powerless and, like a cornered animal, can only lash out under pressure. The social effects of the financial crisis have been addressed in a number of Bong’s films, such as in individual scenes in The Host (2006), but his treatment of this theme in Influenza remains unique in its use of CCTV footage. At the time of its production, the number of CCTV devices in the subway, department stores, elevators, along the highway, in ATM machines, and at many other public locations rose dramatically in Korea. Aesthetically, the images produced by these surveillance cameras may be characterized through their voyeuristic nature, their long takes, and inability to select through montage. Bong of course does select and edit this grainy video footage, but not in a manner that is typical of fictional narrative cinema comprised of close-ups and shot-reverse shots.
The refusal of CCTV footage to direct the attention of the viewer raises questions, not only about what is narratively significant within the image, but also around the ethics of how Mr. Cho’s behavior may be judged. These shots ostensibly present “life caught unawares,” yet the spectator may be left wondering about how to read his character without the close-up shots necessary to reveal the expressivity of his face. With looking and the assigning of criminality at stake, we may be reminded here of the ending to Memories of Murder (2003), produced one year before Influenza. Questioning the act of judgment, asking who is deserving of sympathy, and critically interrogating how others are judged through their speech and behavior are key concerns in Bong’s cinema. Both short films are no exception.
Steve Choe (Associate Professor, School of Cinema at San Francisco State University)