Ahead of Parasite’s UK release (and probable Oscars win), Nick Chen provides an introductory guide to Bong Joon-ho’s cinematic oeuvre
- TextNick Chen
“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong Joon-ho quipped onstage at this year’s Golden Globes. “We use just one language: cinema.” The South Korean auteur, who was accepting yet another trophy for Parasite, could also have been describing his own eclectic back catalogue. Awards voters, where were you for Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother?
Still, if there’s any justice in this sick, sad world, Parasite will win the Best Picture prize at this weekend’s Oscars. The genre-bending comedy-crime-thriller-family-drama (take your pick!) poignantly grapples with the universal theme of income inequality, but does so with audacious twists, visual panache, and a running gag about lousy wifi. The hype is fully justified, and so is Bong’s plea that first-time viewers enter cold – when that moment occurs, you’ll realise it from an entire room gasping in unison.
If you must know something about Parasite, which is finally out in the UK this Friday, here’s a brief synopsis: a poor family in Seoul live in a basement-level flat where strangers piss on the windows; meanwhile, a wealthy family reside in a luxurious house atop a hill you would happily die on. The less financially fortunate group attempt to infiltrate the fancier home by snagging jobs as tutors, a maid, and a chauffeur. It goes very well – until it goes very wrong.
However, while Parasite has deservedly dominated this year’s awards season, it’s not actually Bong’s finest film – it’s just the one that’s most efficiently broken through that one-inch-tall barrier. Here are five other Bong extravaganzas to give a go.
Memories of Murder (2003)
The best place to start, if not with Parasite, is to dive headfirst into Bong’s second movie, Memories of Murder. Based on a real hunt for a serial killer two decades earlier, Bong’s transfixing murder-mystery manages to out-Zodiac Zodiac with its depiction of obsession, corrupt police practices, and sleep-deprived protagonists stumbling onto red herrings. (The real-life inspiration for Memories of Murder was identified and arrested last year.)
The procedural thriller stars Song Kang Ho (so excellent in Parasite) as Park, a detective who’s rattled by the number of dead bodies piling up in the Gyeonggi Province. One possible clue: these corpses are all women who wandered out alone in the rain on nights a certain song played on the radio. So in order to catch the sociopathic killer, Park must get into the mind of a sociopathic killer.
Despite the bleak subject matter, Memories of Murder expertly oscillates between scenes that are funny, depressing, and downright scary – often at the same time. It will, in fact, be rereleased in America later this year, and last month Bong informed a crowd at a Q&A: “I’m a huge fan of David Fincher, but please remember this film came out four years before Zodiac.”
In the opening moments, a 50-something Korean woman sways in a field. Is it a dream? Or a vital clue? And if it’s this enchanting and poetic, does it really matter? When a local schoolgirl is discovered dead on a roof, all signs point to Do-joon (Won Bin) as the guilty partner. So, like Memories of Murder, Mother concerns the pursuit of a killer – except, here, Do-joon’s unnamed mother (Kim Hye Ja) acts alone as the sole believer in her son’s innocence. At what point should a parent’s undying love for their possibly murderous child stop?
The jigsaw-puzzle narrative, as with Parasite, is immaculately plotted. So much so, even minor details – the direction a window is facing, for instance – pay off as the mystery deepens. But the noir-thriller’s masterstroke is the mother turning her investigation inwards: as an overprotective parent, is she a Frankenstein who unleashed a man-child monster into the village?
Above all, Kim, an atypical lead for a murder-mystery, delivers the best performance of any actor in Bong’s filmography so far. The tenacity of the title character will remind viewers to respect their elders, especially the ones who are amateur detectives in heartbreaking self-denial.
The Host (2006)
A box-office smash in South Korea upon release, The Host was a creature feature that broke the rules. Whereas Hollywood enjoys delayed gratification (like how 2014’s Godzilla had an eternity of boring dialogue before the lizard appears), The Host thrusts its gigantic mutant fish into our faces at the 12-minute mark – and, as Bong later confirmed, the CGI creation was partially based on Steve Buscemi’s facial expressions in Fargo.
Also starring Parasite’s Song Kang Ho, The Host dips its genre toe into political satire. Under American orders, toxic chemicals are poured into the Han River; when a monster emerges, the US government deploy fake news to disguise their involvement. But our attention is with a family whose 13-year-old girl is kidnapped by the human-eating amphibian. So the band of outsiders – including Bae Donna as an Olympic-level archer – navigate the sewers on a rescue mission. Spoiler: the archery-related climax really hits the spot.
At the time, Quentin Tarantino heralded Bong as the new Spielberg (not true – Bong’s worst film is superior to Spielberg’s best film), and The Host proved to be Bong’s international breakthrough. Fortunately, Universal’s attempts for an English-language remake failed – the original is still there for everyone, including Steve Buscemi, to relish.
For Bong’s English-language debut, he merged three forces of evil: manmade global warming, social inequality, and Harvey Weinstein. In 2031, the few survivors of a new ice age are aboard the Snowpiercer, an allegory-powered train that divides its passengers into haves and have-nots: sushi and other luxuries are served at the front; at the back, it’s gruelling labour and crushed insects for mealtime.
As the multilingual rebels – including Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho and Octavia Spencer – kick down doors and advance down the vehicle in protest, Bong cements his reputation as one of cinema’s weirdest and greatest visual stylists. Each train compartment is an excuse for a new, elaborate sci-fi concoction – who can forget Allison Pill as a trigger-happy teacher? – and it’s topped off by a suggestion that the planet can only be saved once the human race is extinct.
During production, Bong infamously fought with Weinstein (who wanted to trim 25 minutes and add a dumbed-down voiceover) over creative control, but thankfully only Bong’s cut was released. In fact, the slaughterhouse’s location in 2017’s Okja is a wink to where Weinstein screened his mangled version to test audiences. Moreover, Snowpiercer should be watched as a spiritual counterpart to Parasite: one is horizontally oriented class warfare, the other is vertical.
Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Bong’s debut movie is underrated by many people, including Bong himself. “Please forget it,” the director told Slate last year. “It’s a very stupid movie.” The understated black comedy – well, for dog lovers, it’s a full-on horror flick – introduces obsessions and storytelling motifs that are still recognisable in Bong’s work. Like Parasite, it boasts an upstairs/downstairs battle, a mysterious basement, and an ensemble of social outcasts.
In a block of flats, Yun-ju (Lee Sung Jae) is troubled by career woes, a pregnant wife unable to work, and, most of all, the incessant yapping of a canine somewhere in the building. It doesn’t take long for Yun-ju to consider dognapping or, even worse, chucking it off the rooftop. (Bong once joked that Okja was meant to be a corrective to the fictional animal cruelty.) As with the director’s later films, that dark thread clashes with the optimism of Hyun-nam (Bae Doona), a downstairs neighbour who wishes to catch the dognapper – not just to save the doggies, but to achieve fame.
The jazz-scored chase scenes are fun and frenetic, while the quieter, dialogue-driven moments are rich with pathos. Bong has since admitted that Yun-ju was partly based on himself, although Hyun-nam’s frustration with her anonymity is the cry of an underappreciated filmmaker. Even as Bong is discovering his footing, it’s impossible for him to shoot a dull scene.
Parasite is out in UK cinemas on February 7