Tonal Shifts 01/25/21

A few nights ago, Rios and I watched Memories of Murder, one of Bong Joon-ho’s earliest films. Based on the true events of South Korea’s first serial killer, it tracks a few bumbling small town cops as they try (and fail) to catch the culprit. It’s well shot and well acted, but it does something that I’m not seeing in American film.

When I watch a movie from Korea or Japan, it feels as though each scene is approached as its own world. Whether or not there is a flow from A to B seems less important than whether the emotional tone of the scene in question is fulfilled or not. If it’s a comical scene, it will play out like an Abbott and Costello bit. If it is dramatic, the scene won’t stop until it’s got you feeling weepy.

This doesn’t quite track with how American films seem to work. There are often scenes of exposition. We are obsessed with getting to the end, to have things rise, rise, rise, then climax.

Not so in Memories of Murder, or something like The Wailing. It often feels like you’re watching several films stitched together…it’s cohesive, but the tone shifts. My buddies and I have been talking about tonal shifts a lot lately, and how to incorporate them into our own work.

You do so by treating every scene as important. Everything has to have a reason to be there. No empty exposition. You might need a scene to exist to get one line of dialogue out of a character, but you’d better be ready to construct a life for that scene. Some kind of house it can live in.

Anyway, it was a great movie.

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