Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Bong Joon-ho

With Bong‘s Palme d’Or-winning Parasite in theaters this month, we figured October is as good a time as any to look back at the films of Bong Joon-ho. Known for his willingness to experiment, sense of humor, and ability to juggle multiple genres and tones throughout his films, Bong Joon-ho never fails to leave an impression and we hope you enjoy reading our thoughts on a number of his films.

Memories of Murder (2003)

By Eugene Kang

Memories of MurderThough Barking Dogs Never Bite was Bong Joon-ho’s first feature, Memories of Murder would be the acclaimed initiation of Bong’s career as one of South Korea’s most important modern auteurs. Memories of Murder follows the investigation of South Korea’s first known serial murders. The investigation is poorly handled at all levels, and innocent lives are hurt or claimed by both the murderer and the police. Yet the movie is laced with a searing dark humor that eviscerates the incompetence of the investigation and those involved. Visually, Bong favors long takes with beautifully composed mise-en-scènes of his actors instead of the typical coverage that is omnipresent in most films today, making what could have been a conventional detective thriller into a comedy of manners and an expansive social satire. Some of the techniques Bong uses in Memories owe a little to the fact that Bong was in part adapting a play, but Bong’s impeccable eye for detail and his deep trust in his actors (which include frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho) signal a formidable talent.

The Host (2006)

By Ben McDonald

The HostNo matter what genre Bong Joon-ho is working within, all of his films dance a delicate and playful ballet between tone, character, and spectacle. The Host finds Bong working within the mold of the ‘monster movie’, and although the film loosely follows some of the tropes of the subgenre (a grotesque creature birthed by careless scientists wreaks mass panic upon a city, kidnapping loved ones for future snacks), the film is anything but traditional. Far from an empty thrill-ride, The Host delivers a sprawling adventure while also remembering the warm, lovable characters at its heart. Its monster also defies many of the stereotypes of the genre – its intricate truck-sized body was based upon a real mutated fish caught in the Han river and constructed completely out of CGI (a vulnerability the film wears so confidently that its obviously dated effects become charming and even believable). Like every Bong Joon-ho film, there’s a sly political subtext soaring between the moment-to-moment electricity of The Host – in this case, it’s a mixture of environmentalism and anti-American sentiment. All of these ideas, glued together by wonderful performances and a thoughtful visual articulacy, make The Host one of Bong Joon-ho’s most thoroughly unique and entertaining genre excursions.

Mother (2009)

By Eugene Kang

MotherThe noir has gone through many permutations in its long history, but Bong Joon-ho managed to create a take on the genre like no other. Veteran actress Kang Hye-Ja stars as a poor widow whose mentally disabled adult son (Won Bin) is accused of the murder of a schoolgirl, despite only circumstantial evidence. After trying all the official channels, which, unsurprisingly, turn out to be unsuccessful due largely to institutional callousness, she becomes her own detective to prove her son’s innocence. Her journey leads her into the dark underbelly of what seemed to be just a small, rural town. Much is said of the often disorienting shift in tones of many of his movies, and this movie’s dark humor sometimes tips into outright slapstick, but Mother is still a tense thriller, mainly because of Kang Hye-Ja’s incredible performance. She can seem like a typical Korean mother with a big blind spot concerning her son, but we see that mutate into something borderline sinister as she immerses herself in a world which she would have never thought existed.

Snowpiercer (2013)

By Alex Sitaras

SnowpiercerSnowpiercer was my first Bong Joon-ho film, and I’d recommend anyone new to his filmography to start here. A blend of high-concept science fiction, social realism, and action thriller, Snowpiercer exhibits the best of the wild and wacky that Bong Joon-ho offers his audience. One doesn’t have to hold an interest in any of the film’s genres in order to find great entertainment in Snowpiercer and the film itself isn’t too far removed from Hollywood blockbusters.

Starring Bong regular Song Kang-ho and Hollywood movie stars Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Ed Harris, Bong assembled a rather star-studded and unique cast for an arthouse film. Even though Snowpiercer marks Bong’s English language debut, Bong’s directorial style isn’t lost in the slightest. The film holds all the humor, thoughtfulness, and eclecticism that we’ve come to know and love from Bong Joon-ho.

Okja (2017)

By George Morris

OkjaFor a filmmaker known for his tonal shifts and jarring displacements of genre, Okja (his Netflix-produced adventure film about a young girl who tries to save her genetically-modified pet pig from being slaughtered for food) feels stranger than the rest of his filmography at times. It’s kitsch in all the best ways. 

The mischievous element, as Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) joins a ragtag group of animal rights activists (lead by Paul Dano’s Jay) to put a stop to the actions of the Mirando corporation, is ripped straight from a surrealist family film. Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton’s performances are bright and wild, soaking up attention left and right whilst beneath their skin and Okja itself is darker subject matter that builds up and seep through. Commentary on animal abuse and the meat industry are obvious but Bong Joon-ho wisely limits such obvious parallels to standalone scenes and moments that are enough to stay with viewers for a long, long time. 

Instead, Okja blasts out an un-encompassed explosion of kinetic energy like only a filmmaker with no rules can. The back-and-forth between the skyscrapers and bustling of New York City and the mountain forests of South Korea blend together, as the corporate seeds tempt even those who live everything but a modern life. Okja doesn’t need to make a commentary on capitalism yet wholeheartedly embraces these themes just to see what sticks the landing.

Strangely, the CGI-crafted titular Okja feels like the most realistic character within the world of back-stabbing assistants, lying translators and disturbed television zoologists, and attempting to destroy the most grounded aspect alludes to Joon-ho’s notion that the world we’re living in is growing increasingly absurd. Either that, or it’s just a tale of a girl trying to save her best friend of course… and both interpretations work in their own fascinating way.

Parasite (2019)

By Henry Baime

ParasitePoised to become the first South Korean film ever nominated for- and likely to win- an Academy Award, and already the first Korean winner of the Palme d’Or, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has opened around the world to near unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike and it isn’t hard to see why. Long one of the most exciting directors of modern cinema with a slew of compelling films across a number of genres, Bong Joon-ho has firmly cemented his status as one of the defining filmmakers of the 21st century with Parasite.

Combining some of the aspects of his past films as he creates a darkly humorous thriller about the tensions between social classes, Bong Joon-ho demonstrates a complete mastery of the filmmaking craft that is rarely seen. Every aspect of Parasite is tightly calculated to present something unique and entrancing that continues to surprise until its final moments when Parasite delivers an ending that won’t soon leave the mind of anyone who watches it. The film is tragic and expresses an anger throughout that comes to a head in horrific incidents on several occasions, but comedy is never far away and the film is thrilling, crowd-pleasing fun with a message.

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