Why this might not seem so easy
Parasite is in UK cinemas from 7 February 2020
The 21st-century explosion of interest in South Korean cinema has seen several directors rise to international prominence. While the films of Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong and Kim Ki-duk have remained more typically familiar to eager festival audiences, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon Ho have managed to make work that proved both critically and commercially successful.
Credit: Dean Chalkley for Sight & Sound
In the same year that Park shot to fame with Oldboy (2003), Bong’s Memories of Murder became a domestic smash, but it was 2006’s The Host that launched him on the international stage, while also becoming the highest grossing film ever at the Korean box office. With more than 13 million ticket sales in a country of less than 50 million, it’s possible that a quarter of the population saw it in the theatre.
Since then Bong has gone on to make four more films, including two star-studded English-language extravaganzas. He’s continued to bask in critical acclaim, while becoming a filmmaker who inspires such passionate advocacy that his fans have their own hashtag, #Bonghive. His new film, Parasite (2019), not only claimed the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival but has garnered a best picture nomination at the forthcoming Oscars, as well as a best director nod for Bong.
The best place to start – The Host
By coming to The Host first, you can recreate the initial thrill that international audiences had in 2006 as a mutant fish monster lumbered out of the Han river and began merrily munching on Seoul’s picnicking locals in broad daylight. More importantly, however, The Host provides a perfect introduction to several of the key facets of Bong’s filmmaking that wind their way through his entire oeuvre and make the films feel distinctly his.
First is his playful application of genre. The Host is loudly and proudly a creature feature, but it’s one that blends aspects of the Hollywood blockbuster and Japanese kaiju (monster) films with the interpersonal dynamics of a family drama and satirical political landscape. If you throw in the trappings of a kidnap thriller (Bong once argued this, saying that the kidnapper just happened to be a monster), you have an idea of the various genres colliding in this single film and often in a single scene. It makes the film as slippery a prospect as its aquatic antagonist.
Tone is something similarly difficult to pin down in Bong’s films, the atmosphere often shifting from tragic to farcical in an instant. In one scene early in The Host, a grieving grandfather solemnly swears vengeance on the amphibious beast that took his granddaughter from him. The camera then pans away and observes over his shoulder as a city official in a biohazard suit walking behind him slips over, as if on a banana peel. The Host’s monster was apparently designed with Steve Buscemi’s turn in Fargo (1996) in mind, and Bong’s film shares the Coens’ penchant for careering between bloody violence and broad comedy.
Then there is The Host’s political satire, which isn’t woven subtly through metaphor (though that certainly exists as well) as much as played up front. Bong’s films regularly feature protagonists who live at the bottom of the economic pile and who struggle against the overwhelming opposition they face in society. That’s the case here too, but The Host has also been described as the first major Korean film to overtly criticise the legacy of the US in the country – in the opening scene, an American scientist forces his Korean subordinate to pour formaldehyde into the Han, thus creating the film’s monster.
There are various other pointed references to recent Korean history – from the student demonstrations and defence drills of the 1980s to the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge in 1994 – and the film features a Korean-US task force that’s laughably ineffectual in responding to the emergency.
What to watch next
From The Host you could jump straight to Bong’s new film Parasite, a thriller about an impoverished family who, one by one, wheedle their way into the lavish home of a well-to-do couple and their two children. This is Bong on biting satirical form, ostensibly launching an assault on the prevalent inequality in modern (Korean) society. As ever, however, prepare to be wrong-footed. Catharsis is as elusive as the truth in this unfolding mystery in which intricate plotting and dark comedy eventually give way to grisly farce. Perhaps Bong’s least tonally varying film to date, it sneaks its genre-hopping in under its immaculately polished veneer.
Watch the Parasite trailer
Alternatively you could take a step back from The Host and see his second film, Memories of Murder. His first collaboration with actor Song Kang-ho (who also stars in The Host and Parasite), it’s a slow-burning detective mystery that could be compared to something like David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), though with a more cumulatively oppressive atmosphere and regular injections of absurdly comic violence. Inspired by a true life series of murders in the rural locale of Gyeonggi Province, this tragicomic procedural epic manages to masterfully balance the gallows humour of a failing police investigation and the growing weight of that failure’s consequences while once again casting an eye over the effects of a repressive society on its subjects.
If the rustic protagonists of Memories of Murder are left behind in society’s gutter, they’re transferred to the back of its train in Snowpiercer (2013). Flipping the class system on its side, Bong’s English-language debut takes place in a dystopian sci-fi future in which an environmental disaster has struck and humanity’s survivors have all been crammed into a perpetually moving train. Aptly summed up by one of its own characters as “a blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot”, Snowpiercer follows the soot-laden inhabitants of the train’s back section as they come together to resist their oppression at the hands of those in the train’s front section. The political allegory is quite broad, but it makes for an enormously enjoyable slice of blockbuster cinema.
A world away from Snowpiercer is Mother (2009), which is perhaps Bong’s richest film. Starring veteran actress Kim Hye-ja (who is regularly associated with idealised, maternal roles), it focuses on a single mother whose ambiguously intense relationship with her slow-witted son is threatened when he is charged by local police for the murder of a schoolgirl. Blending all of Bong’s familiar tropes, the result is a genre-defying mystery with a stellar central turn that pits an elderly woman against a seemingly overwhelming system in the hope of defending her small, marginalised family.
Where not to start
The fact that it hasn’t had a home entertainment release in the UK makes it difficult to see, but Bong himself – in a Slate interview last autumn – asked that we “please forget” his debut feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000). “It’s a very stupid movie,” he protested. The film is about an unemployed grad student who is driven to canicide by the insistent yapping of dogs. While it admittedly pales in comparison to his more accomplished works, it also contains inventive hallmarks of his later films, which completists should find of interest.
Okja (2017) lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. Having been released on Netflix it’s maybe Bong’s most widely accessible work, and far from something to be avoided. This colourful, wacky adventure-cum-anti-meat-industry-crusade in which a young girl goes on a quest to save her friend, a genetically modified superpig called Okja, might be Bong’s most ‘Bong’ film yet. Perhaps, though, this one is best seen once you have a wider appreciation of the director’s prior work.
- Bong Joon Ho will be Sight & Sound magazine’s first ever guest editor. Bong will oversee the magazine’s March 2020 issue, available digitally on 3 February and on newsstands 6 February. This coincides with the UK release of his latest film, Parasite