Spotlight on Korean Directors: Bong Joon-Ho

By Dianelys Fuentes

If you’re familiar with Korean cinema, chances are you’ve seen one of Boon Joon-Ho films. Three of his films (Snowpiercer, The Host, and Parasite) are among the highest-grossing films in the country. He recently made history at Cannes Film Festival for becoming the first Korean director to win the Palme D’Or award. Let’s take a look at how Bong Joon-Ho become the prestigious director he is today.

Beginnings: 

Bong Joon-Ho was born in Daegu in 1969. He developed a strong interest in filmmaking while in middle school, but because of his parents' disapproval, he majored in sociology at Yonsei University. While in Yonsei, he joined the film club, and in the '90s enrolled in a two-year program at the Korean Academy of Film Arts. His graduation short films, Memory Within a Frame and Incoherence, received screening invitations for the Vancouver and Hong Kong international film festivals.

His first feature film, Barking Dog Never Bites is a dark-comedy drama that tells the story of a professor who gets so irritated by the constant barking of the dogs in his building that he starts kidnapping them while another tenant, a young woman bored with her life, begins to investigate the disappearances. The film received mixed reviews and didn’t have much success. Barking Dog Never Bites has the lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes with a 78% audience score while most of the movies that followed scored 90% or higher.

Rise to Fame: 

It was Bong’s second film, Memories of a Murder, that catapulted him to fame. The film was released in 2003 and premiered internationally in an acclaimed Spanish film festival, San Sebastian. The film is based on a real, never-caught (at the time), serial killer who terrorized a rural Korean town in the '80s. But rather than focusing on the crime itself, the movie focuses on the people affected by it, and the moral dilemmas faced by the police officers trying to solve the case. Aside from commercial success, the film received various awards and praise from local and international critics. 

Another success followed in 2006 when The Host, about a creature that appears in the Han River and kidnaps a child, premiered in Cannes Film Festival. The movie was praised for its advanced graphics and special effects, but also the criticism of the United States meddling in South Korea. The opening scene shows the American military dumping chemicals in the Han River, which led to the monsters’ creation. Bong said in an interview with Cineaste that political commentary is part of the monster genre and that he was honored to sneak those in and have it work so well within the story. The Host established Bong’s career as a filmmaker by having the widest release ever in South Korea and setting a box-office record with 13 million tickets sold.

English Films:

In 2013, Bong released his first film in English, Snowpiercer, based on the French post-apocalyptic graphic novel Le Transperceneige. This movie featured a stellar cast with Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Olivia Spencer, and even included some of The Host’s cast members. The entire movie is set on a moving train carrying the last humans on Earth, but each section of the train is divided by class and no one is allowed to leave. Evan’s character, fed up with the inequality of it all, decides to rile up the poor, working class to rebel against the elite. Critics loved Snowpiercer and praised Bong’s direction and the performances. 

His next English film, Ojka, is a Netflix original released in 2017. It is an action-adventure film which tells the story of a South Korean girl and her mutant super-pig named Okja, who are separated when the company that created the pig claims it for a special competition in the United States. The girl does everything possible to get her pig back, including getting involved with a group that’s trying to bring the corporation down, breaking a few international laws, and exposing an entire industry in the process. It featured a mixed of South Korean and American actors. When Okja premiered in Cannes it received a four-minute standing ovation at the end despite facing criticism for being a Netflix release rather than a theatrical one. The movie got favorable reviews with Bong being praised for creating “eclectic entertainment.” 

Underlying Themes: 

Since the beginning of his career, Bong Joon-Ho has managed to include social commentary in his films. Cineaste Magazine says, “the moral and emotional struggles of ordinary Koreans faced with bizarre social dilemmas are a thematic mainstay in Bong’s films.”  In his first film, it’s the main character using animal abuse to release everyday stress and his building neighbor investigating the case to escape her mundane reality. In Memories of a Murder and another of his acclaimed films, Mother, we see the lines of right and wrong blurred as the characters deal with their own moral dilemmas. In The Host, we see corruption, bribery, and a desperate family to get back their child exposing their selfishness and flaws in the process. In Snowpiercer and Ojka, we see capitalism and social divide as the root of all evil.

Although Bong says he likes to include these commentaries in all his films, he doesn’t see it as a critique but rather a depiction of real life. When asked about walking a fine line between satire and being judgemental in The Host, Bong said “My films are ironic. I don’t feel anger though I don’t accept corruption, naturally. But this strange acceptance of the Korean people raises questions for me. I really wanted to depict the typical Korean attitude in my film.” He also told The Hollywood Reporter, it is the director’s job to illustrate the time he or she is living in. 

On Making History:

This year, Bong became the first South Korean director to win the Palme D’Or, which is the highest prize at the festival, for his latest film, Parasite. Bong hopes that his win inspires more people to get familiar with Korean cinema. “There’s a lot of Korean talent that could win the Palme. I would like to do more retrospectives around the world featuring great Korean directors. Maybe today this will help me move forward in this direction. It’s an opportunity for people to learn more about Korean cinema around the world,” he told IndieWire.

Parasite will be released in the United States in October. 

Which Korean film or director would you like us to highlight next? Let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget to check out our spotlight director on Yim Soon-Rye.

Cover Image: Bong Joon-Ho
Written by Dianelys Fuentes

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