By Ronak Gupta Feb. 11, 2020
There's no better time than now, when #Parasite's worldwide recognition has revealed an appetite for world cinema, to take a deep-dive into Bong Joon-ho’s filmography. Go rewatch Parasite in the theatres as many times as you’d like, but come back after and watch these five films that are a testament of a generational talent working at the absolute height of his powers.
In May last year, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite – the South Korean filmmaker’s seventh feature – won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival by a unanimous vote, becoming the first Korean film to win the award. Yesterday at the Oscars, Parasite created history once again as the first non-English language film to win Best Film; the film had by then already picked up three Oscars (Best Screenplay, Best International Feature, Best Director).
Between these two awards, lies a journey. That of audiences worldwide “overcoming the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”. And, while Joon-ho deserves all the adulation that he has been receiving for Parasite, this isn’t the first time he has successfully – and adeptly – pulled off a subversive genre film. It’s been his modus operandi for the entirety of the last two decades since he made his directorial debut with Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000).
Over the years, Joon-ho’s films have impressively balanced the act of headily blending themes and jarring tonal shifts with a strong emotional core. It’s why his films are visually inventive, audacious, and yet accessible. There’s arguably no better time than now when Parasite’s worldwide recognition has revealed an appetite for world cinema, to take a deep-dive into the director’s filmography. Go rewatch Parasite in the theatres as many times as you’d like, but come back after and watch these five Joon-ho films that are a testament of a generational talent working at the absolute height of his powers.
- Memories of Murder (2003)
Memories of Murder is by all means, Joon-ho’s breakout film. The critically-acclaimed film was inspired by a series of unsolved murders that shook the Korean province of Hwaseong in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The film functions as a riveting police procedural that is expertly staged; it’s also equal parts harrowing and uneasy, once you move your gaze away from the crime-solvers to the crimes themselves. Featuring the director’s frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho, Memories of Murder is enlivened by an unforgettable final shot that will remain seared in your memory after the movie ends. Need more reason to watch it? In a bizarre twist, the South Korean Police have at last identified the serial killer responsible for these murders last year, three decades after the killings.
Memories of Murder can be streamed on YouTube.
- Mother (2009)
Mother chronicles the struggles of a poor Korean woman trying to absolve her mentally disabled son of a crime he may or may not have committed. It’s a simple premise on paper, but Joon-ho slowly peels off layers. Much of this is the story itself – its quirks and dark comedy overpower your senses. But, so much of the guessing game also stems from Joon-ho’s masterful direction. Compared to the director’s other films, Mother has arguably the least stakes, which makes its final payoff all the more heartbreaking. Less a crime mystery and more a unique glimpse into motherhood and guilt, Mother remains one of the most criminally underwatched gems of the millennium.
- Snowpiercer (2013)
Snowpiercer was Joon-ho’s first English language film, and subsequently the first to have a cast more familiar to Hollywood. The film is based on a French graphic novel that tracks the perpetual journey of a train around a post-dystopia frozen world. All of humanity is contained within the train and populations are horizontally segregated – an allegory for the modern class system. And then, a riot erupts. The director’s visual style is on full display here and while in the hands of any other director, the heavy themes could have collapsed on themselves, Joon-ho keeps it grounded in raw realism. Earlier this year, Snowpiercer had an overdue moment in the sun when Joon-ho revealed that he had battled Harvey Weinstein to retain the film’s final cut, which culminated in the movie not getting a nationwide release and effectively hampering its box-office fate.
Snowpiercer is streaming on Netflix India.
- The Host (2006)
At first glance, The Host looks like any other creature feature – its plot revolves around a slimy gigantic creature terrorising a city. But if Memories of Murder displayed Joon-ho’s knack for tackling a self-contained drama, The Host showed off his prowess of giving a monster movie a unique spin. Between moments of tension, which Bong carefully ratchets up and releases, the film makes subtle commentaries about the Korean government and the apathy and irresponsible nature of the US towards smaller, less powerful countries. The Host never feels like a fantastical monster movie, even though it has a monster at the centre of it. That’s no minor achievement.
The Host is streaming on Netflix India.
- Okja (2017)
Okja is Joon-ho’s second English language film and his most publicised one (until Parasite), given that it secured a Netflix release. Okja is also the director’s most Spielberg-ian film to date; it is almost ET-like in how it centres the film around the emotional bond between a young girl and her pet pig. Despite these narrative similarities, Joon-ho’s treatment adopts a more whimsical and ultimately darker tone. Just when you think that Okja will play safe with its central conflict, the director pulls off a delicate high-wire act, that permits the film to descend into bleaker territory. Okja’s drastic shift in tonal sensibilities is seamlessly merged ensuring that the film works as both, a light-hearted dramedy and a social commentary on the meat industry’s inherently exploitative nature.
Okja is streaming on Netflix India.
When Ronak is not busy being a part-time PhD student and a full time nerd, he dreams about one of three things - becoming the Indian Bill Nye, dunking a basketball like Lebron James, or getting devoured by a velociraptor.