What'll it take to bestir the mass American viewership out of their close-minded, xenophobic, unchanging—Happy Meal obeisance to the narrow spectrum of Hollywood beats, rhythms, and redundancies? If Bong Joon-ho's The Host didn't do it, maybe it can't be done—a box-office record breaker in South Korea, this craziest, brambliest, and least predictable of digital-behemoth thrillers only pulled in a few desultory mil from us, to our misfortune.
In the last decade or so, Korean cinema has become one of the world's most entertainingly psychotic cultural expressions, and Bong is one of its clown princes, making movies that toggle between modes of improper comedy, holy-shit mayhem, yowling pathos, and poetic mystery with an electron's fickleness. Premise-wise, The Host is merely a revisit to the likes of Swamp Thing, The Day of the Triffids, and countless radioactive-monster programmers—thanks to the improper dumping of chemicals into the Han River in Seoul years before, a snakehead-fish-like mutant amphibian the size of a city bus appears (in broad daylight) and begins eating people. But Bong front-loads the movie with a customarily bizarre stew of social satire and character farce, focusing his narrative on a single, ludicrously dysfunctional family whom, despite a cataract of hilarious chaos and caricature, we come to heroize, respect, and hope for. Uncomfortably un-American moments like a weeping brawl before a dead girl's memorial photo and an evil-government-authority lobotomy (in a Chomskian subplot about state control and crisis exploitation) only make the experience riskier and funnier.
The mooring lines tied to reality are cut for good in the peak '80s—'90s work of Hong Kong shitstorm Tsui Hark, who as director and/or producer did more than any other individual to make his island nation, once upon a time, the world's most anarchic film industry. (A Tsui context: Compare 2001's digital fart-noise Zu Warriors to 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, where this hectic insanity got its DNA.) New to local DVD is Swordsman II (1992), which despite its generic sequel title is close to a paradigm of Tsui's late-century attention-deficit wuxia pian style, comprising chintzy spectacle, shameless visual shortcuts, gasping editing vaults, faster-than-a-heartbeat flying action, and pure narrative bushwah. Officially directed by martial-arts doyen Ching Siu-tung, but like The East Is Red and the Chinese Ghost Story movies actually a blast-off partnership with breathless producer Tsui, Swordsman II owes little to its prosaic antecedent, and wraps a typically crazed storyline—packed with battling clans, double-crossing "chambers," and rogue warriors—around guileless drunkard Jet Li facing off against Brigitte Lin's eunuch-demigod-hermaphrodite Asia the Invincible in a cyclone of scattered limbs, tentacle chiffon, and howling wind. Critic Howard Hampton described its "sumptuous sexual ambiguities" as "gravity- and gender-defying leaps into places both Cocteau and Boorman feared to tread"—and with no digital Crouching Tigerization necessary. It's possible that no film better epitomizes the HK dreamscape: furiously irrational, desert dusty, clotted with arcane martial-lore badinage ("Was that the Mount Wah Sword Stance?!"), quick as lizards' tongues, as unbelievable as it is undeniable.