On 20 February this year, president Donald Trump entertained crowds at a rally in Colorado in his own inimitable way – by trashing Bong Joon-ho’s movie PARASITE (2019), which had days before picked up a fistful of Academy Awards including Best Picture, then evoking GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), a symbol of true American ‘greatness’ and an icon of the country’s mythical golden age when making heroes of the Ku Klux Klan was no biggie and non-white faces at the Oscars were rarer than rocking horse dung. “And the winner is… a movie from South Korea,” brayed Trump, with mock incredulity. “What the hell was that all about?”
To misinterpret a rhetorical question, had Trump seen PARASITE (and his comments made it clear that he hadn’t, and had no intention of doing so) he’d have known that, like all of Bong’s films, it’s about a number of things. Ostensibly, it’s the story of an impoverished Seoul family who hatch an elaborate plot to infiltrate the lives and home of a rich family, only for it to backfire on them in spectacular and shocking fashion. Riven with black humor, nail-biting tension and careening plot twists, it is also, on another level entirely, about class division, wealth inequality, racial identity, and the socioeconomic realities of life in today’s South Korea, a country wrestling with both the remnants of its colonial past and the unhinged totalitarian regime across its northern border. A lot of movies have subtext (GONE WITH THE WIND sure as hell does) but cramming that amount of satirical baggage into a tightly-wound thriller, without sacrificing momentum, focus or laughs, takes an exceptional filmmaker indeed.
Born in Daegu, South Korea, in September 1969, Bong’s artistic leanings were fostered from an early age by his mother, a fulltime housewife, and his father, a graphic designer and professor of art at Yeungnam University. He had ambitions to be a film director from the age of twelve, funding his first video camera by selling doughnuts at his school cafeteria (the camera was so precious, he would cuddle it in bed at night like a teddy bear). His social conscience was forged when he enrolled at Yonsei University in Seoul to study sociology. He became active in the South Korean democracy movement, taking part in numerous demonstrations, inhaling his share of tear gas in the process. As much as anything, it was his exploits on the front line of civil unrest that influenced his later output. Reusing to be defined by any single genre, Bong’s films are nevertheless connected by a thread of biting social commentary.
After serving two years of compulsory military service (an experience that will surely surface in his work at some point), Bong returned to university in 1992, and shortly afterwards co-founded the Yellow Door film club. A creative melting pot for Seoul’s student community, the club was where Bong made his first short films. More ambitious works followed during his two-year stint at the Korean Academy of Film Arts, including his graduation films, INCOHERENCE and MEMORIES IN MY FRAME, both of which were screened at the Hong Kong and Vancouver International Film Festivals.
Despite the promising start, Bong then spent five years scraping a living in various technical roles on other people’s projects. In 2000, he made his first feature film, BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE, a lo-fi satire inspired by the Victorian novel A Dog of Flanders, a hugely popular children’s story in East Asia. Showcasing Boon’s flair for black comedy, the film was not one for the kids – or the faint of heart – centering on a frustrated academic who resorts to kidnapping and killing his neighbors’ dogs when their barking gets on his nerves. It was a critical if not a commercial hit, playing well on the festival circuit and establishing Bong as a director to watch. His next project, 2003’s MEMORIES OF A MURDER, a typically idiosyncratic crime drama based on the exploits of South Korea’s first ever serial killer, upped the ante considerably, earning near universal critical acclaim, a shower of awards, and the first stirrings of international recognition for its creator. “An almost perversely conceived hybrid,” wrote John Anderson in Newsday. “Noirish thriller, social satire and virtual Korean Keystone Komedy with a dash of political attitude.”
Bong followed up with a string of diverse and richly entertaining movies, each one adding further luster to his growing reputation as a uniquely talented writer and director. 2006’s THE HOST, partially filmed in the sewers of Seoul, pumped fresh blood into the B-movie monster flick with trademark wit and a nod to the allegory-laden sci-fi flicks of the 1950s. Three years later, he took a tonal U-turn with MOTHER (2009), another uniquely envisioned mash-up of thriller, family drama and queasily comedic horror, in which a lonely widow (the superb Kim Hye-ja) fights to clear her intellectually disabled son from a murder charge. 2013’s SNOWPIERCER, based on Jean-Marc Rochette’s graphic novel Le Transperceneige, was a deep dive into dystopian sci-fi action in which the sole survivors of the human race are strictly segregated by social class and confined to a train speeding through the frozen wastes of earth, now a Hoth-like ice planet following a disastrous attempt to reverse global warming. Bong’s first film in English and boasting a top-flight international cast headed by Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt, SNOWPIERCER was hailed by critics as one of the year’s best movies. Given a wide release in the United States, it put Bong on the fast track out the cult zone and off the art-house circuit.
Freshly ensconced on the A-list, Bong had a free choice of projects – he could easily have snagged a superhero gig on the cache from SNOWPIERCER but opted, characteristically, to go his own way (plus, he doesn’t care for the tight costumes, apparently). If SNOWPIERCER was a “headlong rush into conceptual lunacy,” as Time Out put it, his next film, 2017’s OKJA, was a bracing stroll into the bizarre and touching. The Okja of the title is an enormous, genetically engineered ‘super-pig’ whose route to the slaughterhouse is thwarted by the love and unswerving devotion of a young Korean girl (Ahn Seo-hyun). Filmed in Seoul and Vancouver, it was a truly international endeavor with English-speaking actors Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lilly Collins, Paul Dano and Giancarlo Esposito rounding out the cast.
Financed by Netflix, Okja met with some opposition when it premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, with a smattering of boos from anti-streaming purists accompanying the Netflix logo. They nay-sayers had obviously left by the end (or, more likely, been won over by the film’s immense charm and originality) since it received a four-minute standing ovation. In 2019, The New York Times proclaimed it one of the ten most influential films of the decade, while Newsweek’s Zach Schonfeld struck a familiar chord when he wrote: “It’s a testament to Bong’s sprawling ambition that OKJA manages to be so many things at once – a caustic satire of corporate evil, an intercontinental action/adventure epic, a coming-of-age narrative…”
With the images of Bong at the Oscars still fresh – grappling with an armful of statuettes, his face glowing with delight and the promise of a night’s hard partying– the big question is: what’s next? The TV adaptation of SNOWPIERCER, starring Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs, made its TNT debut on 17 May this year, and a small screen spin-off of PARASITE is in the works at HBO. So far though, Bong has given no indication that his involvement with either series will be beyond his role as executive producer. As for future film projects, he has been cagy. ”I want to work on films on the scale of PARASITE and MOTHER,” he told IndieWire in February, “one in Korean and one in English.” The latter, he said, will be based on a news story he stumbled across on CNN four years ago and will be “a small, realistic drama piece.” The former, he says, will be more ambiguous. “If you have to describe it,” told IndieWire, “it’s ‘horror-action’ and a disaster that happens in Seoul. I’ve had this idea since 2001, so I’ve been developing it for 18 years, and now I have an obsession. I really do have to shoot this movie. To give you a hint, I’s not a film you can shoot in NYC or Chicago. It only works if all the pedestraians on the street have the same skin tone.” Which is playing things very close to the vest. All he would add on the subject at his post-Oscars press conference was that he was continuing to work on both projects. “Nothing has changed because of these awards,” he said. And it’s not hard to take him at his word. You can’t imagine him being distracted from his quest to make unique and original movies by the bright lights of Hollywood or a bagatelle like an Oscar, not even four of them. Whatever peculiar shape his forthcoming films take – and he has also hinted at dream projects inspired by The Great Escape and Touch of Evil – it’s a safe bet that they won’t fit preconceived notions or genre stereotypes easily. Or maybe it will, maybe that’ll be the big reveal – instead of a POW film noir, a ripped-from-the headlines comedy-drama, or a horror-action disaster flick it’ll be a lavishly costumed period piece coursing with the outmoded attitudes of a bygone era. The fans might not like it, but we know one person who’ll be happy.