In Retrospect: Parasite’s Bong Joon-Ho’s Greatest Features Over The Years9 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
There is no filmmaker quite like Bong Joon-ho.
Under his direction, there is no such thing as genre expectations or social boundaries, and he breaches into difficult topics like one might, say, dig into a hearty meal – with complete abandon and gusto.
He throws away genre tropes in a sleight of hand that completely baffles and amazes, while somehow manages to wrangle disparate subjects into a story that is impossible to categorise. And perhaps it is this impeccable ability to push and pull the audience in completely unexpected directions that makes him such an icon.
While Parasite seems to harness the best of his skills, he is more than just that single film. In fact, aside from his Palme d’Or-winning feature, he has six other impressively diverse and unique films under his belt.
Here’s the list:
Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Barking Dogs Never Bite revolves around Ko Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae), an unemployed graduate stuck – in more ways than one – in a life that he loathes to be in. Amidst struggling to get a job as a university professor and the straining relationship with his pregnant wife, the incessant yapping of a neighbouring dog is all it takes for him to snap.
Boon Joon-ho’s debut film sets the trajectory on which his later films would follow. This movie pulls together the macabre and the absurd in a way that is at once discomfiting yet contemplative of human behaviour. Though a little rough around the edges, it certainly offers glimpses into the future award-winning filmmaker that Bong Joon-ho would soon grow to become.
Fair warning to the squeamish: this is not an animal-friendly film.
Memories of Murder (2003)
Disclaimer alert: this might be my favourite Bong Joon-ho film to date.
Just as the title suggests, Memories of Murder recreates the first instance of serial murders in South Korea in 1986. When a young woman gets raped and murdered in an otherwise idyllic countryside, local police officers have to fumble to apprehend the criminal before it’s too late.
The keyword is: fumble. The lead detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and his partner Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha), having never dealt with a case like this before, are evidently overwhelmed, and they are soon joined by a volunteer detective from Seoul, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung). Together, they make an unlikely team bound by the same duty: to nab the murderer before he gets away.
Like most of Bong Joon-ho’s films, this film spans multiple genres. The antics of the three characters, who are all strikingly different in personalities and methods, play out almost like a slapstick comedy; the brutality of the grisly murders emanate an atmosphere of suspense and terror akin to that of a thriller; and the local officers’ inaptitude at preserving crime scenes and solving crime is a social commentary on the failure of a system that’s meant to protect its citizens. Together, these strands produce a film that is at once charming as it is desolate and bleak – a classic film that is no less gripping now than it was over ten years ago.
Also, it marks the first collaboration between Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho, who together would produce a slew of iconic, award-winning films in the years to come.
Memories of Murder is available to watch on Amazon Prime.
The Host (2006)
Following the wide acclaim of Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho’s next move is a step into a familiar genre – the monster film. His take on the genre, however, is slightly different from what one might typically expect.
The film follows a family who is determined to save a little girl from the hands of an unknown monster lurking in the depths of the Han River. Already, its premise stands out from the rest of the other monster films in its genre – the film is not simply about subjugating a terrible monster that is wreaking havoc on the city, but about a family whose one-minded focus is to save their little girl, with or without outside help.
But this is not where the film shines. The film stands out because it is an authentically, unapologetically Korean film, that is made by Koreans and meant for the Korean market. The characters in the family relate to the different age-groups that can be found in a typical Korean family, and the family’s seclusion from society in a time when they need help most alludes to pertinent issues in Korea at the time. And despite all of its glaring Korean-ness, it still has enough heart to capture the attention of a worldwide audience.
Though at its surface, The Host seems to sit comfortably within the expectations of its genre, it is still essentially a film about family and kinship, with an underlying thread of political commentary throughout. With such layered nuances and complexities, it is no wonder that it has remained one of the best monster films in recent decades.
The Host can be found on Netflix.
Mother follows a mother (Kim Hye-ja) as she struggles to clear her son’s (Won Bin) name when he gets arrested for murder. The premise might sound simple, but Bong Joon-ho has a way of bringing anarchy even to the most ordered society – and this rings especially true with Mother.
The film masquerades itself as a family drama, but is almost structured like a whodunit, whereby the mother’s determination to seek out the true murderer drives the entire plot of the story. Yet as the film progresses and the mother squeezes herself too tightly into a hole she cannot crawl out of, it plays out more like a psychological thriller, and the different layers of truth is slowly peeled away as the film descends further into chaos.
“You and I are one,” says the mother to her son – and just like the film’s deceptively straightforward premise, this simple phrase holds more than one meaning. It is a curse and a promise all at once, and it begins and ends the film like a circle constantly chasing after itself – and therein lies the entire plot of Mother.
More a study on human psychology than anything else, Bong Joon-ho’s Mother is a piece that will stun and marvel the crowds for a long time.
Boon Joon-ho marks his debut into Hollywood with the sci-fi film Snowpiercer. On board the Snowpiercer train, a group of marginalised passengers, led by Curtis (Chris Evans), plot a revolution to overthrow their oppressor – fronted by Mason (Tilda Swinton) – in a version of Earth that has once again been decimated by another ice age.
There is less subtlety in this film than his previous ones; the premise immediately presents itself as a commentary about class differences, whereby the haves rule and the have-nots are forced beneath their feet and treated lower than rats.
Similar to his other films, the goings-on inside the train is more than just eccentric, which makes it a refreshing contrast to its darker elements. Tilda Swinton’s villain, especially, is a mash-up of all things monstrous and terrible, taking elements from the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Adolf Hitler; and her comical monstrosity, juxtaposed against beautiful visuals and violent fight scenes, creates a chaos that somehow manages to unfold beautifully.
While perhaps not as nuanced as his other features, Snowpiercer is an almost theatrical take on the typical sci-fi dystopian Hollywood film, which makes it a great watch.
Snowpiercer can be found on Netflix.
Okja is a simple tale of a girl and her beloved pig – though of course, it is not that simple. Okja is a super-piglet, created by the corporation Mirando as a means to solve world hunger, and when Okja is taken away to compete in a beauty pageant, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has to fight to take her beloved friend back.
This film is not meant to be subtle. It is meant to be a glaringly blatant commentary about the food-production industry, about the exploitation of animals that are seen as less-than and industrial greed that fuels this economy. And it does just that.
As usual with most of Bong Joon-ho’s films, he challenges the extremes in a preposterous dystopian world that holds up a mirror to our own, with stunning visuals that are evocative of director Hayao Miyazaki’s works.
Amidst all of the action, Okja is still ultimately a story about a girl and her pig, who is as human as the rest of us. And perhaps that’s the true message of the film: that just as there are souls in the animals that we consume, there should be a soul that resides in the industry that produces them.
Okja can be found on Netflix.
Bong Joon-ho’s films are messy, quirky, and genre-defying – but undeniably full of meaning and significance. It is not difficult to see, through his history of films, his growth as a director – which ultimately culminated in the masterpiece that Parasite is today.