The “New Wave” in Korean Cinema had started in late 1990’s when a bunch of new age film directors made their debut. In 1996, HONG Sangsoo made his debut with The Day a Pig Fell into the Well and KIM Ki-duk made his with Crocodile. LEE Chang-dong, an award winner at Cannes for Secret Sunshine, made his debut the same year with Green Fish. Then, in 1998, E J-yong made his debut with An Affair, KIM Jee-woon his with The Quiet Family and IM Sang-soo his with Girls’ Night Out, while 1999 saw the debuts of JUNG Ji-woo (Happy End) and KIM Tae-yong (Memento Mori: Whispering Corridors 2). In 2000, IM Kwon-taek was invited to Cannes for Chunhyang, and PARK Chanwook, who had already made two feature films that were miserable commercial failures, came back with the box office whirlwind of Joint Security Area. That same year saw RYOO Seung-wan’s debut with Die Bad and, at long last, BONG Joon-ho’s debut with Barking Dogs Never Bite.
BONG Joon-ho appeared at precisely this point in time. But it wasn’t easy for him. His debut was the biggest commercial failure out of all of the debuts mentioned above, and it was scarcely even mentioned by critics. This is somewhat odd, since BONG was already known to the public before making his feature film debut with Barking Dogs Never Bite. His short film Incoherence, made in 1994 as a graduation project at the Korean Academy of Film Arts, was shown at various independent short film festivals that year and praised enthusiastically by Korean audiences, even earning invitations to some overseas film festivals. His debut was highly anticipated, along with those of other stars of the independent world like EJ-yong, JANG Joon-hwan, Daniel H. BYUN and KIM Tae-yong. But the film was a huge flop. In BONG’s own words, the film met with something even more terrifying than criticism—it was totally ignored.
- Incoherence (1994):
BONG Joon-ho made his debut with Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000, at the very time when a crowd of talented Korean newcomer directors were appearing on the scene. His short film Incoherence, made in 1994 as a graduation project at the Korean Academy of Film Arts, was shown at various independent short film festivals that year and praised enthusiastically by Korean audiences, even earning invitations to some overseas film festivals.
Incoherence, was Bong’s major short film piece in order to examine the trends and thematic consciousness that run through the entirety of his cinematic world. Incoherence is an omnibus work made up of three segments and an epilogue.
The first story: A university professor is walking through the campus and catches a glimpse of the body of a female student made him he slips into an odd sexual fantasy which does not stop there, but continues on as he looks at pornographic magazines in the office while he prepares for class. Then, when it is time for class to begin, he quickly heads to the classroom, leaving one magazine open on his desk. During the lecture, he realizes that he has forgotten some materials and asks a female student to go to his office and get them. Suddenly, he remembers the magazine lying open on his desk and pathetically races after her to his office. He finally catches up with her at the moment she opens the door to the office and goes in. He throws another book onto the desk and succeeds in covering up the magazine. The student is surprised at his odd behavior, and he says, “There was a cockroach.”
The second story: A man who jogs every morning on the side streets of a residential area sneaks sips from the milk bottles placed in front of other people’s houses. One day, the owner of one house comes out when he is drinking the milk, and the jogger pins the crime on a passing newspaper delivery boy and runs away. The framed paper boy chases the shameless man down the street.
The third story: A man is walking down the street late at night, fairly drunk from a reception for a guest held earlier, and he suddenly feels stomach pains. It appears that he’s suffering from diarrhea, but he can’t find a suitable bathroom. Frantic, he attempts to relieve himself on the wall of a nearby apartment, but he is discovered by the security guard and thoroughly shamed. The guard gives the flustered man a newspaper and tells him to do his business in the apartment’s basement. Upon arriving at the basement, the man is indignant at the injury to his pride, and he uses the guards’ rice dish in the corner to relieve himself.
Epilogue: An experts’ debate on political affairs is taking place on TV. Three panelists cry out for a more conservative Korean society: the professor with the dirty magazine, the editorialist at a conservative daily who was stealing other people’s milk, and the public security prosecutor who shat in the security guards’ rice dish in the basement.
This short film, lasting only 30 minutes, already bears the origins of the codes that would continue in BONG’s works, from Barking Dogs Never Bite to The Host. The authoritarian characters, when they encounter certain obstacles that everyone is likely to encounter in the course of daily life, act in a shamefully shallow and comic way. Each episode emphasizes the characters’ duality and comic elements rather than the plot, bringing out the characters’ subtleties in a way that maintains genre tension at every moment, but at the same time violates it. In particular, as the director confessedly identifies himself as a TV fanatic, it is the TV debate presented in the epilogue that is a mechanism to bring together each of the omnibus episodes presented in this short film. Through this device, he does not stop at making hypocritical and comic elements of the characters things in themselves, but expands them with the social mechanism of distrust and cynicism toward the ruling class of Korean society.
- Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000):
After Incoherence, Bong Joon-Ho made his debut with Barking Dogs Never Bite which is a satirical take on the 1872 novel A Dog of Flanders, a European pet story that is very popular in parts of East Asia.
Barking Dogs Never Bite stars Lee Sung-jae as an out-of-work college professor who is irritated by the sound of barking dogs in his apartment building, and eventually resorts to abusing, kidnapping and killing them. Meanwhile, a young woman working at the apartment complex decides to investigate the matter after she starts receiving notices from the tenants about the missing dogs.
When this film debuted, reviewers for some Korean journals found the film’s humor coarse and were particularly uncomfortable with the unexamined ethical consciousness of Yun-ju, who pays a bribe to become a professor. The comic situations taking place in one scene do not complete their humor through a resolution within that scene, but are edited so that they can only be understood through a transition to the next scene, like the partitioned frames of a cartoon. The actions and emotions of the characters are often exaggerated or dreamlike, like in a cartoon, and certain moments take place in an intensely depressing or slow manner. The main character, Yun-ju, elicits audience sympathy in that he is living a chaotic life, but at the same time he is terribly vicious (he kills a dog without hesitation) and selfish, and he compromises with an ideology of social climbing enough to willingly pay a bribe to become a professor.
In my first encounter with it, I found the film dubious. The humor was somehow familiar, not original, and the characters were distinctive but not appealing. These are the most agonizing moments. Like it or not, you have to have a sense before you write for it to be enjoyable, and I couldn’t get that sense. Only later did I realize what I hadn’t gotten. In Barking Dogs Never Bite, warmth and coldness, laughter and fear, cynicism and tolerance, and the realistic and the dreamlike all coexist. These contradictory elements are not all vaguely connected together, but rather create an original chord under the direction of the cartoon generation’s distinctive imagination and sensitivity. I had failed to hear that chord.HUH Moonyung (Film critic)
So this film, made in 2000, seemed somehow strange and unsuited to the ethical attitude of “political correctness.” The emptiness of the cinematic space, which almost no other characters appearing other than the leads, was awkward, and people were perplexed to find that awkwardness filled with dreamlike fantasy and offbeat humor. Rather than reaching a compromise with an incoherent life that anyone could face, the character of Yun-ju instead seemed morally bereft. But if one turns it around, the hesitant assessments of BONG at the time would connect with the repletion of character and violation of genre patterns that appeared in his later works.
- Memories of Murder (2003):
While BONG’s Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006) have completely different stories and belong to completely different genres, they ultimately converge upon one story and history like the paintings in a diptych. Memories of Murder is a thriller based on the Hwaseong serial murders, which disturbed Korean society in the 1980s, and it is a film of “foregone defeat” for the detective main characters, since, as all Koreans know, the killer was never identified. The Host, on the other hand, is categorized in the monster movie genre, but it is a film about a fictionalized reality, forming its incidents by drawing upon images from a set of real coordinates connected with Korean society in 2006. What should be noted in these two films is the strategy of reproduction used by the director to form real incidents into cinematic ones. This strategy forms around certain spaces, and it is here that an allegory of Korean society as seen by BONG Joon-ho is reflected.
The analysis of Memories of Murder and The Host as a diptych begins with the fact that they both start from the assumptions of the modernization of Korean society and the incompetence of state authorities. But from its very title, Memories of Murder is faced with an ethical dilemma, as the only one who can remember murder is the agent—the killer—and never the victim. From the point of view of Walter Benjamin, the film is archaeological, in that it goes back to an incomplete incident that is already vanishing from memory, but in its establishment of the agent, it chooses the aggressor—the killer. Murder is not something that can be remembered. To turn this around, it would only be correct to call it Mourning for the Victim, but BONG Joon-ho starts from the opposite pole.
The central figures in the film are the Hwaseong-area detectives and their suspects. The detectives are low-level arms of state authority, and the suspects are all figures outside the bounds of what society accepts as normal (fetishists, rapists, the mentally retarded). As indicated in the film’s tag line, “I wanted to catch him so much I was going crazy,” Memories of Murder contains the story of the failed detectives’ frustration. The object of mourning here is not the dead women but the era itself, and Hwaseong is the space shaping that era into an allegory.
- The Host (2006)
The same type of setting in which a dead body is abandoned and evil disappears in Memories of Murder makes another appearance in The Host. The countless sewer tunnels located around the Han River are everyday spaces in Seoul, but they actually have an unfamiliar interior that nobody ever enters. It is here that the monster dumps the bodies it has feasted upon, it is here where those frustrated with life commit suicide, it is here where the homeless loiter about, and it is in this labyrinthine space that the family wanders and loses its way in search of a missing young daughter. It is allegory as a space of death and disappearance.
What drives the narrative in this film is the question of where Hyeon-seo is after she is snatched away by the monster. The agents of the pursuit are the girl’s family. While the incompetent Gang-du (SONG Kang-ho), seemingly a societal reject, joins his family in a pursuit of Hyeon-seo that costs them all they have and risks their lives, the state authorities either do nothing or get in the family’s way.
The incompetent state authorities, which appeared in Memories of Murder, are idly watching the situation or making things worse in this film too. Though the film belongs to the monster movie genre, the identity or location of the monster is not important to the family. They just want to find Hyeon-seo.
The main character and allegory in The Host is not the monster, which is, in fact, rather closer to a McGuffin. The film’s narrative shows no interest in the identity or signs of the monster. The real main character and allegorical space in The Host is, as in Memories of Murder, the dark, damp sewer tunnels of the Han River. Thus, those spaces, which we pass over every day but never look into, appear to be very foreign, imaginary spaces. Inside one of these spaces, Hyeon-seo has been left behind along with the other bodies.
- Mother (2009):
In all of his movies, Bong likes to take classic genres like horror and science fiction and infuse them with social commentary, family drama, and a hefty dose of comedy. 2009’s “Mother” is no different. In this film, he tackles the murder mystery genre with a story about an elderly mother (Kim Hye-ja) and her lovably naive son who is accused of murdering a teenage girl. Her 27-year-old son, Do-joon (Won Bin), has intellectual disabilities and is unjustly coerced into a confession by the town’s abusive and incompetent investigators, a political trope that returns from Bong’s other murder mystery “Memories of Murder.” Only this time, it’s not a pair of bungling detectives but a desperate mother who sets out to solve the crime and prove her son innocent. The result is another tragic and thoroughly engrossing masterpiece.
One of Bong’s most distinguishing qualities as a storyteller is his obsession with grotesquely incompetent characters, whom he affectionately likes to call “lovable losers,” and putting them in impossible situations. These exaggerated premises are what fuel the powerful drama in his typically dark and tragic films, but what is more interesting is how they make his films so funny.
- Snowpiercer (2013):
Based on the French graphic novel “La Transperceneige,” Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” begins in the extremely not-too-distant future as mankind launches a final attempt to halt the spread of global warming once and for all. Needless to say, the plan backfires spectacularly and plunges the world into a new ice age that causes the extinction of all life forms.
Luckily, before all this happened, wealthy industrialist Wilford, constructed a high-speed luxury train that can circle the globe without stopping or suffering the effects of the weather outside. Now, humanity’s last remnants reside on the train—the well-to-do people living in comfort in the head cars with the poor and downtrodden masses stuck in back in cramped quarters and forced to subsist on protein bars made from.
After seventeen years of subhuman conditions, the people in back are about to explode and Curtis (Chris Evans) is elected to lead the charge, albeit reluctantly. There have been failed insurrections in the past but old-timer Gilliam (John Hurt) has an idea—one of the prisoners placed in cryogenic sleep, Namgoong (Kang-ho Song), was one of the train’s original engineers before turning into a junkie and knows how to override the complicated system of locked doors to help with the forward progress. After realizing that the armed guards sent by Wilford’s right-hand woman Mason (Tilda Swinton) are not as threatening as they seem, Curtis and Namgoong, along with a party that includes Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Namgoong’s daughter Yona (An-sung Ko), set off for the head of the train and a final confrontation with Wilford to determine their fates.
From a visual perspective, “Snowpiercer” is never less than stunning as it provides thrilling images ranging from the desolate landscape outside (complete with the occasional body still frozen in mid-step) to a full-size aquarium with beauty that is outdone only by its implausibility.Roger Ebert
- Okja (2017)
Okja is a 2017 action-adventure film about a girl who raises a genetically modified superpig. Directed by Bong Joon-ho and co-written by Bong and Jon Ronson.
“Okja” is the heartwarming tale of a girl and her giant mutant pig, brought to life through a mix of digital effects and puppetry that makes a nonexistent beast seem as real as E.T. or King Kong. – Roger Ebert
Unlike his earlier film “Snowpiercer” Mr. Bong juggles delight and didacticism with exquisite grace in Okja. Rather than turn out cardboard heroes and villains, he savors the eccentricity of his characters, in the sheer weirdness of our ingenious and idiotic species. – New York Times.
The film competed for the Palme d’Or in the main competition section at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It was released on Netflix on June 28, 2017. The film received positive reviews from critics.
- Parasite (2019):
Parasite (Korean: 기생충; RR: Gisaengchung) is a 2019 South Korean black comedy thriller film directed by Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-won. The story follows the members of a poor family who scheme to become employed by a wealthy family by infiltrating their household and posing as unrelated, highly qualified individuals.
Parasite examines what happens when the Kims, one by one, start working for the Parks—after which the story develops in some shocking ways, a Bong specialty. Described by Bong himself as “a comedy without clowns and a tragedy without villains,” the film moves quickly from one tone to another, mixing pathos and satire with thrills and drama, in a perfectly controlled blend of many different genres.
Bong, who has called his movie a “tragicomedy,” said his inspiration came from an early job he held working for a wealthy family in South Korea — even though he got fired after two months, the foundation was set.
This is the story about infiltration. One family infiltrates to other family. This is in the middle of that process. —that kind of moment.” “Simply speaking, it’s just something like ‘Mission: Impossible,’ the TV series when I was a little kid. I was a huge fan. And this some kind of nerdy family version of ‘Mission: Impossible.BONG JOON HO (WITH NY TIMES)
Film making style of Bong Joon-Ho:
Most of the BONG’s movies certainly depended upon his very personal experiences and tastes. In his debut movie, even the apartment in which the film is set was the actual apartment BONG had lived in with his wife as a newlywed, and the episodes of the basically good-for-nothing husband and his young wife have been brought in from his own experience or the experience of people he knows. Most of all, the images and the flow of editing appear similar to a cartoonish construction in which frames are connected in strips. It was clearly the film of a new cultural generation, but it didn’t appear to fit in anywhere – not Korean cinematic culture (the new class of audiences wild about Andrei Tarkovsky and Abbas Kiarostami), not auteurism, not commercial populism.
With his first failure, BONG realized that he had to make a film that he would like himself, rather than a film about himself. BONG had been a crime film buff since his youth, and Memories of Murder was the project he chose for his second film.
Most of his movies portray the authoritarian characters, when they encounter certain obstacles that everyone is likely to encounter in the course of daily life, act in a shamefully shallow and comic way. Bong’s major films emphasize his characters’ duality and comic elements rather than the plot, bringing out the characters’ subtleties in a way that maintains genre tension at every moment, but at the same time violates it.
Through this movies like Parasite, BONG does not stop at making hypocritical and comic elements of the characters things in themselves, but expands them with the social mechanism of distrust and cynicism toward the ruling class of Korean society. Bong Joon Ho’s incorporation of social hierarchy using visual cues, including length and height, in his films Parasite and Snowpiercer as examples.
Most of the BONG’s films portrays the protagonists who has been severely harmed by the inequalities of money and power preys upon the wealthy, looks nihilistically at the social order, turns to violence, and is given to fits of compulsive laughter, to fulfill Bong’s strong and admirable intentions. It conveys the sense that he made the movie with the desire, the will, to show something that he has in mind, that troubles him, and that ought to trouble viewers—and to show it in a form that’s sufficiently entertaining, sufficiently within the standards and codes of genre films, that significant numbers of viewers will trouble themselves to see it and make note of what they’ve seen.
Narrow Spaces in BONG Joon-Ho films:
Most of the Bong Joon-Ho movies has narrow kind spaces which he places metaphorically in order to establish his characters and their behavior, sociologically and psychologically.
Selection of powerful images and symmetries:
Bong Joon-Ho is well-known for the use of symmetry in all his previous films; a selection of powerful images that shows the perfectionism and level of detail of Bong’s mise-en-scène.
Importance of Sound:
BONG always tries to convey most the story through the choice of sound only.
Perfect Story boards:
Director Bong Joon Ho storyboards the entire film before he rolls the camera. He does not shoot master shots or any coverage. He shoots his storyboards. Here is a quick comparison of the storyboards and the final 2020 Academy Award-winning Best Picture “Parasite”.
- Korean Film Directors, “Bong Joon-ho” by JUNG Ji-youn.
- Parasite, A Graphic Novel in Story boards, by Bong Joon-ho.