By Soleil Nathwani
Earlier this year, in a pre-COVID land far, far, away, Bong Joon Ho, already hailed as an auteur in South Korea, catapulted to Hollywood fame when his acclaimed film Parasite won Oscars for Best Director, Writer and International Feature and made history by being the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. Never one to shy away from social critique, Bong joked (in all seriousness) that the English speaking world would be introduced to endless gems having overcome the ‘one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles’. It was a fitting statement and an apt finale to the awards journey of a film that, as a tale of two families of opposing fortunes, is a morality fable for a world built on the backs of the less fortunate, the oppressed and the colonized, where income divides are deepening and where wealthier nations, like affluent people, exercise an unequal power. Parasite is touted as the film of this decade as we look to the next. The adulation is not misplaced, especially now in these strange, uncertain times where its themes feel increasingly prescient. The larger issues that face humanity have been the building blocks of Bong’s films and his latest comes on the heels of an enviable body of work that is bittersweet and ugly-beautiful, drawing us in with laughs and thrills yet leaving us reflective as the credits roll, anticipating his next as if grasping for a hand-mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected.
Bong Joon Ho’s oeuvre was born within the electric cultural climate of South Korea in recent decades. After a brief golden period in the 1950s following the end of the Korean War, the country’s film industry sputtered as a military coup spawned widespread censorship. All this changed in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, following the overthrow of military rule. Filmmakers like Bong Joon Ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, Lee Chang-dong and Hong Sang-soo amongst others, breathed new life into the movies. Aware that freedom was a hard-won thing, these artists pushed boundaries; on the one hand buoyed by the springboard of liberation and on the other vigilantly testing the limits, tight-rope style. The storytelling that resulted from working on the razor sharp edge of what was conceivable is by turns bold, brash, sexually perverse, hyper violent, rip-roaringly comedic and audaciously intimate. Amidst these homegrown masters of New Korean Cinema, Bong Joon Ho stands at the vanguard, repeatedly transcending borders with his grasp of the human condition and an ability to thrill.
The socio-political edge that splices dart-like through Bong’s art is something he wields with the precision of a master entertainer. His earliest films contain the hallmarks of what would become a singular style. Memories of Murder, Bong’s second feature in 2003 (following his first, Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000) established him as a distinctive and provocative voice. The film is a detective caper inspired by the hunt for the then still on the loose perpetrator of an actual series of rape killings, the likes of which South Korea had not seen in its modern history. In the opening sequence, a child grasps for stick insects in a verdant paddy field, awash with sunlight. At his feet a man, who we later learn is a detective of dubious morals, stoops to look beneath the concrete slab laid over a ditch. As the camera pans we see what the boy cannot – a young woman who has been gagged, murdered and left to waste. The detective looks back up, exchanging a cheeky retort with the boy and our terror tumbles out as laughter, as the opening credits role. The laughs continue unabated but underneath them lies a scathing critique of the ineptitude of those called to do justice and a devastating picture of those at the mercy of the system. The uncanny juxtaposition of beauty and horror, tragedy delivered as comedy but above all the villainy of real life fed to us as entertainment, has come to define Bong Joon Ho’s films.
The Host followed Memories of Murder in 2006, riding the Bong fever, that had by this point gripped South Korea, to sell thirteen million tickets in its opening run, making it the highest grossing film in the country at the time. This sci-fi tale of an urban sewer monster – an unwitting creation of American scientists forcing workers to dump toxic waste into the drain, destroying a family – captured emotions while sending an unflinching message about chemical pollutants and foreign special interests. The dumping incident was drawn from real events, even if the monster was not. The Host is far more than a monster movie because its conscience looms larger than the monster itself. In his second collaboration (after Memories of Murder) with the master Korean actor Song Kang-ho, this time as a misfit bumbling vendor in his father’s tiny shop and the patriarch of a family torn apart, Bong builds on his keen eye for family dynamics. He presents a family that we not only root for but through whom we feel the particular exigencies of daily life before, during and after a crisis. The result is a big screen pop-corn action affair that nonetheless steeps us in intimate family melodrama. The Host resonates even more deeply today as we remain trapped indoors with our families, afraid to step outside because of an invisible enemy that we are equally ill-equipped to fight. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar before releasing globally, took Bong Joon Ho from plaudits across Asia to acclaim around the world.
Very few directors can operate on each note of the scale spectrum as brilliantly as Bong Joon Ho and most would have opted for the big budget offers that likely flooded in after these massive early successes. As if in defiance, Bong staged his own retreat of sorts by making Mother in 2009, a taut Korean psychodrama with the Hitchcockian overtones of a monstrous love that binds mother and son. He cast veteran actress Kim Hye-ja, best known for playing the idealized mother roles in many Korean films and subverted people’s ideas of what they thought they knew. In Mother she plays an unnamed widow living in a small town with her mentally disabled son who she dotes on, in an obsession that falls just short of incestuous. When the murder of a teenage schoolgirl is pinned on her son, the mother, dismissed by the authorities, goes to inconceivable lengths to find the real killer. Bong replaces the frenzied action of Memories of Murder and The Host with an atmospheric dreamlike aesthetic where the ferocity comes from emotion, not action. Mother questions our very notion of what love and justice should look like and while it might be Bong’s quietest film, it is his most devastating. Mother landed Bong once again at Cannes, this time in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, and on critics’ best-of lists for the year.
Bong Joon Ho’s penchant for ceaselessly posing uncomfortable questions likely came from a healthy childhood mistrust of the way things were. Born in 1969, he grew up in Daegu, South Korea’s fourth largest city. The city was recently at the heart of the country’s coronavirus outbreak and its swift containment was due in part to the high degree of government controls and surveillance, forces borne of its tumultuous history. Bong was the youngest of four kids in an intellectual family that had experienced the myriad external factors tugging at Korea which had been liberated from Japanese imperial control only to see tensions escalate between North and South Korea. His father was a graphic designer and professor and his mother, the daughter of an esteemed novelist, was a homemaker who was separated from her family during the Korean War.
Although Bong studied sociology in college at his parents urging, his desire to make films was firmly embedded in a childhood spent watching Hitchcock, De Palma, Carpenter and other American greats, in the wee hours, on a channel designed for U.S. forces stationed in South Korea post the Korean War. For Bong the freedom of Hollywood movies was incongruous with the soldiers in his backyard, who were there to maintain peace but also propped up an iron fisted military. Student life that followed was marked by a mistrust of teachers and constant activism to push for more freedoms whilst spending every spare minute at the student-run film club. By the time Bong completed two years of mandatory military service and graduated from further studies at the Korean Academy of Film Arts in 1995, he was itching to make his voice heard as the country was experiencing its first spasms of democracy.
It was no surprise then, that when Bong Joon Ho finally collaborated with Hollywood he was loath to subsume his politics under a big studio payday and keen to use the distribution machine to hold people to account on a larger scale. He tackled sociopolitical questions pointedly in 2013’s Snowpiercer, a story of explicit class warfare as embodied by the compartments of a futuristic globe spanning train, the occupants of which are the last remnants of humanity following a climate engineering catastrophe. Bong’s first film in English, Snowpiercer is led by a star cast of Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Bong’s now frequent collaborator, Song Kang-ho and is based on a French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, that Bong devoured in the bookstore where he first found it in 2005, so consumed was he even then, with the who and why of survival in a divided society.
Bong’s uncanny flair for turning genre tropes, be they crime capers, monster movies or family drama into tools to have us confront real world issues, is on full display in Snowpiercer. He is a master of using genre conversely; not to tell us what to think but to destabilize us so we do think, softening us up with laughter, reeling us in with suspense, ratcheting up the thrills whilst delivering something of substance and the action-packed satire of Snowpiercer is both a wild and wildly unsettling ride. For the regular movie-goer in America, the star-led Weinstein Company release (at the height of Harvey Weinstein’s now defunct career) that was the introduction to Bong Joon Ho, was one that didn’t compromise the moral core of his desire to reveal society’s inequities. The fierce divisions that Bong illustrates so brilliantly in Snowpiercer are all around us in the fractured politics of nation and state, the divergent interests of the haves and the have nots and the clear costs of advancement amidst the reality of losing our planet.
If Snowpiercer made the wider movie going public aware of Bong Joon Ho’s ideology as a filmmaker, it made producers aware of his ability to produce success after success, both critical and commercial, seemingly defying the usual stumbling blocks of adapting to location, language or budget. This awareness combined with Bong’s derailed relationship with Weinstein – Snowpiercer was the first time the director, known for his perfectionism, was denied final cut – resulted in a confluence of events that has forever changed the we see cinema.
Bong’s follow up to Snowpiercer in 2017 was Okja, an eerie spin on the childhood favorite, Charlotte’s Web, which he turned into a wild and increasingly dark tale of a young Korean girl trying to save her genetically modified super-pig from an American factory farm. Netflix, in collaboration with Brad Pitt’s Plan B, signed off on a $50mm budget and creative freedom for Bong’s vision in what would be their first great ‘Netflix Original’, a big movie that largely bypassed the big screen. For a director who had written and story-boarded all his films, going so far as to frequently act out some scenes for his actors, the creative control was enough to set him on the path of subverting the movie ecosystem. Okja released at Cannes, Bong’s first time in the Cannes Main Slate, and competed for the much coveted Palme D’Or. It opened to boos at the Netflix title card from an audience unwilling to give up their idea of ‘cinema’ and ended, in a testament to Bong’s power as a filmmaker, in a minutes long standing ovation from viewers blown away by this fantastical fairy tale turned factory farming exposé. Even if it was unclear at that point whether the Netflix model would be the success that it has grown to be, one thing was certain; Bong was a pioneer in all senses of the word and his filmmaking had become a masterclass in making high art blockbusters with a purpose.
Last year with Parasite, Bong Joon Ho’s many talents came back home to roost, figuratively and literally. Parasite is set in Korea and written in Korean, something Bong hadn’t done in the decade since he made Mother. The film is also rooted by its scale, engaging in a tale of two families without venturing much further than their starkly different homes as the poor family scheme until they are all employed by the rich family. The thing that brings it closest to home is that the premise is drawn from Bong’s own memory of being introduced to an incredibly wealthy family in Seoul as a math tutor for one of their children. His then-girlfriend, who is now his wife of over two decades, made the introduction and Bong never forgot his incredulity when he walked into the Seoul mansion in a private enclave. The idea to explore what happens when extreme wealth confronts abject poverty in close quarters gestated for years before Bong put pen to paper. Parasite was borne of Bong picking his incredulity apart and letting the sparks fly.
Bong’s films explore the banal, glorious and horrific ways human beings sin against each other, against their better natures and against their planet. With Parasite it all coalesces. It’s quintessential Bong at his best, unleashing his worst trick yet on the audience. His seventh feature and fourth film at Cannes, Parasite is the film that made him a legend in his home country as he brought home Korea’s first Palme D’Or and set him on the path to the multiple Oscar wins that made him a global household name overnight. The bigger surprise (evident even before the Oscar lift) has been Parasite’s commercial success outside of South Korea. It has grossed over $270mm across the globe (including over $70mm from South Korea), a stunning home-run for a Korean-set indie film made on a $12mm budget and is Bong’s first film to cross the $100mm mark. It seems ironic that a hyper local film should garner even more eyeballs and acclaim than Bong’s recent large scale works, but with Parasite Bong made a crowd-thriller that hit a universal nerve.
On the surface, Parasite tells a story of class struggle that’s as old as the hills from Shakespeare to Dickens to Downton Abbey. The impoverished Kims, the patriarch Ki-taek played once again by Song Kang Ho and his wife, Chung-sook (Chang Hye-jin) and their children, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam) live in a basement apartment in the armpit of the city. They are all jobless, folding pizza boxes to tide them over. Their luck turns when Ki-woo lands a gig, by dint of an introduction from his friend and a fake degree courtesy of his graphics savvy sister, as an English tutor for the teenage daughter of the wealthy Park family. He introduces his conspiratorial sister as an art therapist for the Parks’ troubled young son and the siblings waste no time in plotting to have the housekeeper and driver replaced by their own mother and father. Unsuspecting, the smug tech CEO father, Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) and his affable but indolent wife Park Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) revel in smug elation that they have secured the perfect staff. Bong’s belief that ‘even the most mundane of daily aspects, of individuals, carry a socio-political context within them’ has never felt truer. The Parks have their housekeeper feed gourmet meals to their dogs whilst making throwaway comments about the dank whiff of the driver. Parasite makes us laugh while making us squirm as Bong peels back the imbalance in everyday situations, prodding us to think about our own complicity in divisive social structures.
The inherent tension in the film’s spaces and visuals heightens the suspense of lies waiting to be found out and personalities on a collision course. The Kims’ claustrophobic basement apartment is a counterpoint to the hill-set minimalist Park mansion. The prelude to the film’s climax unfolds over a night of torrential rain that itself takes on duel significance. The Kims find themselves in a makeshift camp after their home has been ravaged by flooding as the Parks make love on a sofa overlooking their lawns, where their son has erected a teepee to play ‘camp’ in the rain. Bong shows us that wealth stalls nature from unleashing its fury in equal measure only to caution us that inequality can breed an equal furor as mayhem and bloodshed ensue between the families on the very same manicured lawns in Parasite’s final act.
The visuals are chilling, especially post-COVID as the idea of sheltering in place presents an entirely different reality for the poor in cramped quarters without six feet to spare and the complete lack of shelter for migrant laborers who in some countries have died walking hundreds of miles home, versus the celebrities in their mansions captured on Instagram. In fact, Bong’s awareness of ‘place’ as ‘station’ has consumed him from the detectives’ shabby homes in Memories of Murder to the family’s vendor shop that is destroyed in The Host and the train compartments that literally separate income classes in Snowpiercer. The homes in Parasite are Bong’s most intricate creations, built from scratch in a film that is a microcosm for the world. The staging of events betwixt them becomes a gut punching revelation of the duality of our universe and a mirror through which we are forced to look at our own place in the world.
Parasite makes us laugh, squirm, scream and cry, however, it is the film’s power as allegory that makes it the film for our times. Bong Joon Ho is confronting us with the state of humanity in the universally relatable unit of family that he has become so skilled at portraying. He doesn’t pick a side. Neither the Kims nor the Parks are faultless or foreign to us. The Kims aren’t the only leeches; the Parks exploit their labor and are dependent on those in their employ for both convenience and status. The parasitism is mutual. The chaos is driven by the greed, capitalism and class structures that prop up a system of which we are all a part. Bong has said that, “Regardless of country, we all live in a giant nation of Capitalism.” He’s never been more right. The wealth disparity at the heart of Parasite was tugged at in protests that unfolded across the globe, from protests on tax hikes in Lebanon to ‘Yellow Vest’ worker protests in France to subway hike citizen protests in Chile, as the film traveled from East to West. By having the rain trigger the tragedy precipitating the film’s horrific finale, Bong suggests, as he has done in much of his work, that we are all parasites on a planet that is erupting under our indignities, a planet that as we have seen from wildfires to tsunamis and most devastatingly with COVID-19, will manufacture its own plans for the fate of humanity.
Chalking a vault to global fame up to his catching up with the West as some have done is probably the kind of arrogance that tickles Bong Joon Ho. The notion that the West is somehow aspirational is the love-child of colonialism and capitalism that Bong is constantly skewering. With Parasite Bong gives the finger to that notion, achieving global success with a film set in his own backyard. His films speak a language more universal than English by hacking at the idea that borders confer safety or superiority because in the final analysis humanity’s problems are the same. America, a nation famous for celebrating billionaires, is discovering that the American dream is in many parts broken as the growing legions of homeless in wealthy cities are shunned by yoga-mat toting millionaires and the opioid crisis rages. Parasite’s extreme class conflicts have thrust it into the zeitgeist because they can no longer be dismissed by the ‘first’ world as ‘not us’. The shelter in Parasite invokes stateless refugees everywhere whilst the factory farms in Okja and the broken justice systems in Memories of Murder and Mother represent the lack of rights for man or beast at the bottom of fortune’s totem pole. The questions around nationhood that Bong has posed from The Host to Snowpiercer seem prescient when almost every nation seems to be questioning its leadership. It is not so much that Bong Joon Ho has caught up to the West but rather the inverse as the world acutely feels the sting of the problems that Bong has been addressing for decades.
Bong Joon Ho expresses modesty around the out-sized relevance of his films, but it is fair to say he thinks quite a bit about outcomes. In October 2019, shortly after Bong screened Parasite in the U.S. for the first time, news broke that the serial rapist central to Memories of Murder had come forward. Korean police announced that Lee Choon-jae, a man in his fifties, had confessed to killing fifteen people including the ten victims he had raped. Sixteen years after the film’s release and over thirty years since the actual events, things had come full circle for Bong. To capture the very last frame of Memories of Murder, Bong had asked Song Kang-ho, who played the lead detective, to look directly at the camera. He wanted him to lock eyes with the killer wherever he was. Although Bong was shocked at the confession, it is evident he had made the film hoping to hold the murderer to account. Rumor has it that the killer, who was already in prison on other charges, watched Memories of Murder three times in the years preceding his final confession.
If Bong Joon Ho’s work has a singular purpose, it is that at its core he is keenly and consistently attuned to the power to provoke a kind of self-reckoning. His films entertain endlessly but never shake the awareness of this driving quest, pushing us forward beyond the entertainment, characters and plot to a discordant space where make-believe clashes with a sober reality that pokes at the ways we fail each other. It’s what we do with this provocation that matters and the times we live in have presented us with the latest, greatest, test of our ability to look after each other and our planet. Our present catastrophe is a virus forcing humans into isolation and this pandemic, like others tragedies before it, exists because humanity infringes increasingly on nature and natural habitats. The days feel like a dystopian film that Bong Joon Ho might have written, but this is real life. And as we sort through the mess, with little but virtual togetherness and movies to keep us company, Bong Joon Ho’s work can thrill us as it pushes us to do better. Hopefully we will come out on the other side a kinder, more compassionate race. Regardless, Bong Joon Ho will be watching us, holding us to account.
Soleil Nathwani is a Consulting Editor and Film Critic at Honeysuckle Magazine. She is a Contributing Editor and the culture Columnist at Rolling Stone India. Formerly a Senior Features Writer and Contributing Editor at L’Officiel India and MW India, her celebrity profiles, opinion pieces and features on art, culture, politics, human rights, film and fashion have appeared in numerous publications across the globe. Soleil is also a film producer and former hedge fund COO. She can be found at @soleilnathwani.