Bong Joon-ho is very much hot property right now. His latest film, the smash hit, Parasite has ended up as one of the most acclaimed films of recent years, and he recently won four Oscars for his work on the film. Winning for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film, the director has the record amount of wins for one film all in one night. He is everywhere at the moment, and I thought that I’d celebrate all his films together, including some of the earlier, more unseen works.
(Note: I haven’t seen Joon-ho’s debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite, which I cannot find anywhere. If anyone knows where I can find it, it would love to know).
6. Okja (2017)
Okja is largely notable for being one of the first feature films distributed by Netflix (who at that time, were largely famous for their original TV shows), and it showcases Joon-ho at possibly his weirdest and most bizarre. The plot resolves around a young girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) who goes through everything to save her best friend, a “super pig”, named Okja, who is being hunted by a powerful, multinational company, who plan to use him for food. The film, coming off the back of Snowpiercer, also includes a vary of bigger, Hollywood names, including Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito and Jake Gyllenhaal.
The film is largely remarkable for it’s unashamed weirdness, which it really never would of got away with if it wasn’t an Netflix production. It has some really arresting images – particularly the scene where Okja is captured and scene involving John Denver’s Annie’s Song – in which we witness the real power of Joon-ho behind the camera. Also, as always, the film includes some brilliant black humour and social satire, this time about the greed of corporate companies. Also, like a lot of his films, it always manages to remain weirdly entertaining in quite a mainstream way.
The real problem with Okja, is that at times, it fails to pull off it’s tricky tonal balance. There are moments of black comedy and even slapstick comedy, that mix with some very emotional scenes, particularly towards the end (including a horrifying sequence where we witness various super-pigs being slaughtered), that could of been better threaded together as a collective whole. Also, Gyllenhaal and Swinton’s performances are sometimes painfully over the top.
Okja is really a film to be admired rather than really praised – it is so unashamedly weird and strange, and it’s lovely to see that it got made, but it sometimes doesn’t always succeed in what it’s trying to do.
5. Snowpiercer (2013)
Snowpiercer marks Joon-ho’s first attempt at doing a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, and for the most part, he really pulls it off. The film, released in 2013, takes place abroad on a large train named Snowpiercer, which carries the last remnants of humanity after global warning has caused Earth to become an abandoned, frozen planet. The film stars Chris Evans as a passenger on the lower-class tail section of the train, who leads a revolution against the elite section of the train. Like Okja, the film stars a range of Hollywood names (alongside Evans), including Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt and Ed Harris, and this time, starring his usual collaborator, Song Kang-ho (The Host, Memories of Murder, Parasite).
What’s really wonderful about Snowpiercer is that it managed to become a real block-buster, grossing 86 million on a 40 million budget, but did this, while still feeling completely like a Bong Joon-ho film. The film, like a lot of Joon-ho’s films, contains some big ideas and wonderful satire. Much like Okja, it deals with possibility of a bleak future, but like Parasite, it deconstructs the class system, and comments on the differences between the rich and poor.
But, like all of Joon-ho’s films, he executes these themes in a supremely entertaining and thrilling way. It is a really great action movie at it’s heart, and it’s action sequences and fight scenes are brilliant directed and well-staged. It’s also great to see a big blockbuster that takes big risks – certain characters are killed off in shocking scenes that make for surprising viewing. Seeing Evans in a dramatic role with depth is also really interesting, and all the other cast are great, including a campy but entertaining Swindon.
As a way to introduce Joon-ho to American and international audiences, Snowpiercer is pretty effective.
4. The Host (2006)
This film, along with 2003’s Memories of Murder, is Joon-ho’s real attempt at doing genre. Here, in 2006’s The Host, we see him taking on the monster film genre. Like a lot of his films, he uses quite a simple and un-complicated premise, and uses this to create something more complex.
The film centres on Park Gang-du (Kang-ho), who lives with his father (Byun Hee-bong) and his daughter, Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung), and works as a vendor in his father’s shop. Soon later, a large monster is spotted, and starts terrorising the public, and it kidnaps Hyun-seo. After Gang-du’s siblings, Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na) and Nam-il (Park Hae-il) arrive, Gang-du makes it his mission to save Hyun-seo from the monster.
Combining some of Joon-ho’s favourite themes and hallmarks, including combining genres of family drama, black comedy and a small bit of social satire, The Host is a real treat. Kang-ho, one of South Korea’s most famous actors is absolutely fantastic in the lead role, as are the other actors, including Ah-sung. Also, a lot like Snowpiercer, the film also definitely takes some risks, particularly towards the end.
Although, Memories of Murder was Joon-ho’s breakout film, The Host was the film that set him off for success in the rest of the world, setting up Snowpiercer and Okja.
3. Memories of Murder (2003)
Although not Joon-ho’s first film, this was the film that he really broke out and became an acclaimed auteur. Like 2006’s The Host, he attempts to do a certain genre, but this time, aiming it at the murder mystery/ detective genre.
Based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders in history, which took place between 1986 and 1991, and based off the play (written by Kim Kwang-rim), the film stars Kang-ho and Kim Sang-kyung as two chalk-and-cheese detectives, Park Doo-man and Seo Tae-yoon, respectively, who are investigating the case. While investigating, they come across various red-herrings and clues, some of which might mean something and some of which don’t, and the film ends in a highly ambiguous way.
Unlike Joon-ho’s later films, this film is a little less mainstream and entertaining. The film has a slower pace than usual, and along with it’s ambiguous ending, is a film that is less easy to like. However, the film’s ending is really makes up for it’s slow pace in a wonderful and rather dramatic climax, that has elements of a stand-off from a Spaghetti western.
The film also contains some social satire about the police system in South Korea, and how corrupt the police officers are. Kang-ho and Sang-kyung are also really terrific in the lead roles, as they brilliantly convey the two sides of the same coin (Doo-man being the corrupt one, and Teo-yoon being the more by the book, sensible one). The film also has some elements of black humour, especially shown in Doo-man’s sidekick, Cho Yong-koo (played by Kim Roi-ha).
Often rightfully listed as one of the greatest South Korean films of all time, Memories of Murder is Joon-ho at his real best.
2. Mother (2009)
Mother is often called Joon-ho’s most personal film. It is remarkably different from the rest of his later filmography in that it is wonderfully non-ambitious – it does have the big budget of Snowpiercer or the epic stature of Okja and The Host. It is, however, a really great companion piece to Memories of Murder, seen through it’s detective/procedural roots.
The film follows a unnamed widow and mother (played by a brilliant Kim Hye-ja), who has a mentally challenged son (Won Bin), and they live together in a small Korean town. Mother and son are thrown into chaos when a body of a young girl is discovered, and the son, having interacted with the girl the night before, is accused of her death. Soon enough, the mother makes it her business to clear her son’s name.
Much like Memories of Murder, the film has a lot more of a slower pace than Joon-ho’s later films. The film strips back a lot of what Joon-ho is usually known for, including the black humour and social satire, as, although they are there (like, Memories of Murder, the film satirises the corrupt police system), they are less obvious. The film instead settles for more of a quiet, slow building character study that focuses on the title unnamed mother. Hye-ja is utterly brilliant in the lead, as she is able to capture the right mixture of being the quiet, strong figure in hopes of proving innocence for her son, while still remaining the small and emotional (and at the end, quite violent and shocking) breaks to her character. Her performance is very reminiscent of Frances McDormand’s performance in Three Billboards, released 2 years ago.
What Joon-ho really achieves in Mother is to strip down his auteurist quirks to just focus more on his film-making, and he really achieves that – he creates a quiet, sombre and really affecting character study drama that is utterly fantastic.
1. Parasite (2019)
Every Joon-ho film has their significance and relevance when discussing him and his filmography – Memories of Murder and The Host show his genre roots; Mother showcases his very character based film-making; Okja shows him at him trying to deal with a variety of tone and genres, and Snowpiercer shows his attempt at doing a mainstream blockbuster. However, talking about Parasite is so important because it feels as though he accomplishes all of these features all in one movie, and because of that reason, it is definitely his masterpiece.
The film follows the Kim family – consisting of father, Ki-taek, mother, Chung-sook; son, Ki-taek and daughter, Ki-jung – who are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. They all soon infiltrate themselves into the rich and upper class Park family household, all conning their way into getting jobs there. As they get further into their con, they face suspicion from the Parks’ housekeeper, Moon-gwang and the Parks themselves, including the father, Dong-ik.
Parasite’s release has become a defining moment in South Korean cinema, as it’s become a international success – it won Academy Award for Best Picture, becoming the first foreign language film to do so and has gained over 230 million at the box office, becoming Joon-ho’s biggest hit and one of South Korea’s highest grossing films. The key reason for it’s international success is probably down to the fact that it is a perfect movie, and never puts a foot wrong.
The film has some brilliant social satire, and like Snowpiercer, details the different lifestyles of both the rich and poor, critiquing the rich family’s exuberance. The script develops some beautifully realised characters, and this is brilliant as you could watch the film from the perspective of almost any character. This is ultimately why the film has had such universal appeal, as everyone, in any country, understands the themes on display.
The film, very much inspired by Hitchcock, is a ever-changing and evolving film, completely shifting gears half way through and turning into a completely different film. It changes from a black comedy to thriller/suspense to horror, and sometimes delving into genres like a ghost story and a heist film. However, Joon-ho is able to handle all these genre shifts with ease.
Parasite is utterly brilliant, and is largely Joon-ho’s magnum opus because it details him at the best in almost every avenue – in terms of mainstream, entertaining appeal, genre and tone shifts, developed characters, visual storytelling and social satire. Rightfully winning the Oscar for Best Director, with one movie, Joon-ho has shown himself to be one of the best directors working in film right now. And I wait to see what he does next.