Film Review: Influenza
Directed by Bong Joon Ho. South Korea, 2014, 27 min.
Available for rental or purchase at Grasshopperfilm.com.
If the Parasite (2019) sweep of this year’s Academy Awards has compelled you to see other movies by the great Bong Joon Ho, you’ll gladly find that it won’t require too much legwork. Each of Bong’s six previous feature-length films is currently in circulation on the domestic market, with no less an outlet than The New York Times recently publishing a guide to help you find them (“‘Parasite’ Director Bong Joon Ho’s Must-See Movies: Where to Watch”). Less accessible, unfortunately, are Bong’s short-form works: By my own count, which required more than a couple different sources to reach—including past repertory programs, multiple filmography listings, etc.—director Bong has completed and exhibited seven different short films in total, only two of which are commercially available at the current moment.
Three among the seven are movies that he made during his years at the Korean Academy of Film Arts—White Man (1994, 18 min.), Memories in My Frame (1994, 6 min.), and Incoherence (1994, 31 min.)—all of which have screened just a few times in the United States (among the trio, only Incoherence can be tracked down, and not by any means that we can tell you about here). In contrast, the four short films that Bong has made since his years at the Academy were all produced for inclusion within feature-length anthology films; although some remain equally inaccessible nonetheless. In fact the first, Sink & Rise (2003, 6 min.), which serves as a prelude of sorts to Bong’s celebrated kaiju feature The Host (2006), connects these two different periods of Bong’s career—the student and the professional: It was made for Twentidentity (2003), which per Le Cinema Club is “a 20-part omnibus film composed of works by alumni of the Korean Academy of Film Arts, [made] to celebrate the film school’s 20th anniversary.” That website hosted Sink & Rise for a week in 2017, although it’s no longer available online, legally or otherwise.
Two of Bong’s other short films were produced for Japan-centric anthology features. The longer entry, Shaking Tokyo (2008, 30 min.)—a sci-fi-adjacent hikikomori story that utilizes virtuoso camera movements to make cinematic architecture out of a cramped space filled with pizza boxes (a quality that Parasite viewers will of course find rather familiar)—was featured within Tokyo! (2008), which also includes entries by directors Michel Gondy and Leos Carax. Almost certainly the most widely seen of Bong’s shorts, Shaking Tokyo is still readily available via Tokyo! itself, which remains in circulation on both home video and VOD services.
Bong’s other Japan-related short, on the flip side, is the work of his about which the least is known: Said to be titled Iki, the piece was made for 3.11 A Sense of Home (2011), an omnibus film made in commemoration of those lost in the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on that date. Comprised of 21 shorts running exactly 3 minutes and 11 seconds each, A Sense of Home was screened at just a few different festivals, never made available on home video, and barely even reported on in the English language, so Iki remains a mystery within the Bong filmography, albeit likely a minor one. The most information about the film that I could find online is courtesy the Asiana International Short Film Festival, which appears to have premiered it sometime in 2011, and offers the following synopsis: “A beach with strong tide. There is a girl who’s wandering around. She finds a little girl lying down on the beach side dead or alive.”
That covers them all save for Influenza, the one Bong short currently available to view on its own—although it too was first released via a multi director omnibus feature. “In 2000, South Korea’s Jeonju International Film Festival launched an annual digital project granting three filmmakers a 30-minutes-or-less window, tight budget, and the condition that their work be created with digital cameras and editing systems,” per Grasshopper Film, the film’s current distributor, describing the method of Influenza‘s production1. In the film, Bong answers that implicit call for a digital cinema with a concept that engages quite directly with one of the primary roles that such images have taken up in 21st-century life: Each scene of Influenza is framed entirely from the view of a security camera, either privately owned (in stores and banks) or government operated (with attendant CCTV stamps on screen).
Influenza begins with an image of one Cho Hyuk-rae, denoted “male, 31, the unemployed,” as he leans over a bridge in Seoul; and then depicts him, and eventually a partner, as they engage in a number of criminal acts, most often robbing old ladies at various ATMs, in scenes that usually last at least a couple minutes each. And while the general idea remains the same—every sequence is depicted entirely through an unbroken shot from a nearby or overhead surveillance camera (which brings along with it subtexts that don’t even really need to be articulated at this point)—every new camera “setup” also introduces some kind of twist on the film’s visual language, dictated by the nature of the specific camera recording that scene. In some cases, we’re shown a split-screen covering two angles of the same physical space, thus allowing us to basically edit the scene in our own head by moving our eyes to left or right depending on what angle we perceive to give us the better view on the action (see above, or below). And in one notable scene, there’s a glass window in the background revealing the street action outside an ATM terminal, which leads to an exceptional misdirect—our eyes are drawn toward the wrong space until it’s much too late, playfully denying us the “action” of the scene even as it plays out right in the center of the frame. With a film like Influenza, you tend to keep your eye on the people you consciously identify as “actors”—an experiential quality that the film is fully aware of and even plays against you, in both that misdirect sequence and various others: Like so many other examples of “hybrid fiction” (surveillance-oriented or otherwise), suspense emerges in every scene of Influenza from the simple question of which people in the frame are “in on it”—and that’s especially true of Bong’s quite scary finale, which raises and even dramatizes that question to an extent that recontextualizes the entire preceding film.
Despite its total adherence to the security-cam approach, Influenza is staged with the same clockwork precision that characterizes Parasite and Bong’s other features directed before it. Notes by David Bordwell published in 2009 suggest that the scenes were actually performed in front of real security cameras, in real time, with the footage later retrieved directly from both private and governmental authorities for use in the film. Which seems to me incredible, and perhaps even unbelievable, if only because the choreography of the performers in relation to the framing set by the security cameras—which, as mentioned, sometimes move and even oscillate—is just as exact, and even as geometric, as in Bong’s more traditionally composed features, and to an extent that one would imagine almost impossible without “cooperation” on behalf of the cameras themselves.
On that note—with Bong, the Hitchcock comparison has been done to death, but I must invoke it once more, hopefully in more specific terms: Influenza feels to me like a sort of modern kin to both Hitchcock’s formal experiments (including Lifeboat, 1944, and Rope, 1948) and to some work, both old and new, by self-appointed Hitchcock-successor Brian De Palma, whose own recent films, including Redacted (2007) and Domino (2019) share with Influenza the rare characteristic of staging complex action within surveillance-oriented “found footage”2. Like Rope before it and Domino after, Influenza is a crime film where character is backgrounded in favor of visual concept; and like Hitchcock and De Palma in a more general sense, director Bong has the rare, innate sense for motion, tension, and cinematic dynamism that allows such an ostensibly-gimmicky concept to not only “play” but to emerge as vital substance of its own.
Every one of the Influenza scenes described above, if presented out of context, would comprise a story of their own: a small record of desperate or furious human life caught by the eye of power; each visualized with by a method specific to the space they take place in, and then spruced up even further by the director’s preternatural skill for staging. But taken altogether, they reach a place beyond that, not just cinematographically pleasurable but also genuinely mysterious, and even horrific. Like so many works by Bong’s forebears, and like his own features, Influenza is not just a film of great visual showmanship, but one that reckons with the act of “sight” itself—in more than a few meanings of the word, and implicating more than a few people on either side of the filmmaking apparatus in the process.
1. The omnibus film that originally featured Influenza, officially titled Jeonju Digital Project 2004 (2004), also included entries by filmmakers Gakuryū Ishii and Yu Lik-wai. Although released on DVD a couple times, it’s currently out of print; some copies remain for sale online, albeit used and for marked up prices.
2. Since it never leaves the surveillance viewpoint, Influenza also claims a place within a separate lineage—as a key 2000s-era entry in the “security camera cinema” subgenre. There it joins peers including Deborah Stratman’s In Order Not to Be Here (2003) and Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007); the latter of which, it demands to be noted, even applies some Hitchcockian technique of its own (albeit not hardly as well executed). And with that said, I’d be remiss not to mention that its sequel, Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), directed by Tod Williams, was at one point rumored to have been assigned to none other than Brian De Palma—so in some alternate universe these links, already overlapping a little bit, might have been made even clearer.