Bong Joon Ho's Best Movies (Beyond Parasite)
Only the four Academy Awards for Parasite, then? What a cakewalk.
After all of that frenzied nail-biting and think-piece writing over Bong Joon Ho's chances on Sunday night, the South Korean auteur went and smashed it out of the park. Alongside a Best Director gong, Parasite won the International Feature Film, Original Screenplay and, of course, Best Picture categories, becoming not just the first South Korean film to win an Oscar, but the first foreign-language movie to ever take home the top gong.
So there really is no better time to catch up on the rest of Bong Joon Ho’s celebrated filmography, and delve into the world of South Korean cinema. Here are some of our favorites:
A South Korean widow’s life is turned upside down after her mentally disabled 27-year old son, Yoon Do Joon, is implicated in the brutal murder of a high school girl. The apathetic police and courts are certain of his guilt, thanks to a piece of evidence found near the crime scene, but his mother refuses to accept the ruling. She dedicates herself to finding the truth.
It certainly doesn’t help that Yoon Do Joon, prone to forgetfulness and bouts of anger when people mock his learning disability, can’t remember what he was doing near the murder that night. Her vulnerable son is facing up against a bullish police force determined to get a confession by any means necessary, with absolutely no alibi to speak of. Does his own mother even believe him? She’ll fight his corner, regardless.
Mother is a quietly devastating film about family, unconditional love and obsession, as well as a brutal take down of the tangled, untrustworthy justice system. And like all Bong's movies, it's viciously funny too.
Okja received boos and whistles from the Cannes audience at the beginning of its world premiere in 2017 due to technical glitches and controversy around Netflix-funded films. That Bong’s environmentally minded epic overcame that rocky start to earn a four-minute standing ovation is testament to its ability to move hearts and minds.
We follow Okja, a genetically modified super-pig living in Seoul with a friendly farming family. The animal owes its abnormal size to the Mirando corporation, a mysterious conglomerate that had bred a number of similar super-pigs many years before and sent them to farms all over the world. As the stand-out specimen, Okja is transported back from South Korea to New York, and its heartbroken (and suspicious) ten-year old caretaker, Mija, sneaks along for the ride. Upon arrival, she soon discovers that the Mirando corporation isn’t quite as dedicated to ‘environmentalism’ as it purports to be.
Bong became a vegan in the process of researching the film and the finished project had a pretty seismic impact on the viewing public’s attitudes toward factory farming, too. If you plan on watching it tonight, maybe rustle up a salad.
A botched attempt to scale back global warming via climate engineering drapes the world in a new ice age and the last batch of survivors are stuck on a perpetual, globe-spanning train ride called the Snowpiercer. Inside, over the course of two decades, new systems of class, wealth and privilege emerge. Anger and tension brews amongst those living in squalor, finally bubbling over when a mysterious, cryptic message calls for rebellion. With that, the revolution begins.
Starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and Sir John Hurt, alongside Parasite’s Song Kang Ho, Snowpiercer was the film that introduced Bong incisive social commentary to western audiences, making over $85 million at the box office in 2013. That success was in spite of Harvey Weinstein who, after acquiring the US rights, requested the introduction of opening and closing monologues, as well as 20 minutes of editing. Bong refused, and a ‘Free Snowpiercer’ petition eventually secured it a wider, completely uncut release.
A gargantuan monster emerges from Seoul’s much-polluted River Han, snatching a young girl away from her father, Hee-bong. Citizens are quarantined by the American military, who had carelessly infected the river with formaldehyde, and all hope for Hee-bong’s daughter seems to be lost. Until, that is, he receives a last-gasp phone call. She’s stuck, somewhere, in the grimy sewers of Seoul, but her phone is about to run out. And then it does.
And so we follow Hee-bong, a humble snackbar owner in his late sixties, as he faces up against the murderous beast with the help of his dysfunctional family. In true Bong Joon Ho style, The Host is far more than a mere monster movie; it's an ingenious, at times hilarious pitch-black satire that still manages to terrify the living daylights out of you, subverting all of your horror movie expectations along the way.
It won critical acclaims upon its release in 2006, and Quentin Tarantino, who Bong name-checked in his Academy Awards speech, included it in his list of top 20 films released since 1992. High praise indeed.
Memories of Murder
Another of Quentin’s favorites, the critically acclaimed Memories of Murder is based on the true story of South Korea’s first serial killings between 1986 and 1991. That Bong Joon Ho's engulfing mystery manages to find light in the darkness, transforming grisly source material into brilliantly funny and incisive social commentary, should come as a surprise to no one.
In the midst of a military dictatorship, where repression reigns and violent unrest spills through the streets, a spate of grisly, ritualistic murders hits a small Korean town. Three cops—inept men working in an anarchic, corrupt system—are tasked with solving a case that grows ever more confounding with each new bloodied body and coerced confession. Their investigative techniques leave a lot to be desired, and every time they get a little closer to finding the killer, they realise just how far away from the truth they are.
Authorities had still not yet tracked down the murderer by the time Bong Joon Ho’s sophomore project was released in 2003, and it took another 16 years until police finally came to a conclusion. The director sticks closely to the facts of the case, but this is a story that's more concerned with life, and how not to live it.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.