Monday, November 13, 2023

The films of Bong Joon-ho

The idea of revisiting Bong Joon-ho’s films came while reading Karen Han’s book on the director, Dissident Cinema. I realized that I hadn’t seen Bong Joon-ho’s first feature while missed some of his short films. A revisit would also give the chance to reconsider some of Bong’s films in a different light.

All of these features and shorts were viewed/revisited as part of the spotlight:

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Memories of Murder (2003)
The Host (2006)
Mother (2009)
Snowpiercer (2013)
Okja (2017)
Parasite (2019)

Short films: 

White Man (1994)
Incoherence (1994)
Influenza (2004)
Shaking Tokyo
as part of Tokyo! (2008) anthology

There is a 3 year gap in between the release of all his first four features. That increased to 4 years for the next 2 features before decreasing to 2 years between Okja and Parasite. His next film, Mickey 17, will be released in 2024, a 5 year gap which can be attributed to post-Parasite success and pandemic.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

Karen Han recounts an incident in Dissident Cinema where Bong Joon-ho told an audience to not see this movie:

“This is a very stupid black comedy movie”, he told the crowd just before screening a clip for the 2020 BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series. “Please don’t see the whole movie.”

Bong Joon-Ho spoke the above in 2020, after the release and global acclaim of Parasite so his sentiment is understandable. Barking Dogs Never Bite is uneven in tone and some distance off the quality of his other 6 features yet is still worth viewing as it depicts some themes, stylistic flourishes that Bong Joon-ho would explore in all his subsequent features. Items that we now expect from a Bong Joon-ho film are present from the start in Barking Dogs Never Bite  such as dark humour, class differences, social commentary and even the relevance of a basement.

Although, unlike his subsequent movies, Bong pushes the boundaries of acceptable events on cinema from the start as the film depicts a character who tries to kill a neighbour’s dog for persistent barking. The man tries to throw the dog from the roof of his building but can’t carry out his attempt so instead he locks the dog in a cabinet in the basement of the building. However, it turns out that this was not the dog who was barking persistently so he goes back to get the dog out but it is too late. This isn’t the only ironic aspect in the film as later on his girlfriend buys a dog and he is forced to take care of their dog. The basement is featured prominently in this film as a place for secrets (a story of a ghost haunting the building pipes) and division between rich and poor. The security guard hides in the basement and makes his stew/soup with dead dogs because he can’t afford to procure any other meat unlike the well off middle class residents of the office tower.

Memories of Murder (2003) 

This film is a huge jump in production and execution from Bong Joon-ho’s first feature. Viewing the film in 2023 takes on a different context than when I first saw the film almost two decades ago. Back then, the film was open-ended as the real life serial killer on whom the film is based wasn’t caught. However, in the last few years, the killer has been identified and it turns out that he has been in jail since 1994.

DNA evidence identified the real-life killer. Interestingly, DNA evidence plays a key part in the film as it emerges that South Korea doesn't have such technology (film is set in late 1980s) and the detectives have to send off paperwork and evidence to US to get proof which turns out to be time consuming and not conclusive.

Memories of Murder
can be considered the baseline film for what we now expect from a Bong Joon-ho film: dark humour, presence of Song Kang-Ho (he would go onto star in Bong’s The Host, Snowpiercer and famously in Parasite), sideways sweeping camera pans (quite familiar to those used in The Host), precision to detail, nail-biting suspense, thrills and social/political commentary.

The Host (2006) 

Bong Joon-Ho’s 3rd film is a brilliant multi-layered film that serves as a precursor to Parasite in terms of placing a family at the core of the film’s plot. The family in The Host is at odds with each other and is never seen together in the same room yet the family still come together to save one of their own from the monster. Unlike in Parasite, the family in The Host never eats at the same dinner table but Bong Joon-ho creatively depicts a fantasy sequence where the family is shown eating together emphasizing the family’s dreams and aspirations.

Political, social and economic commentary is present throughout as the film starts off by depicting an American scientist who orders his Korean assistant to dump chemicals down the drain which results in the creation of the monster who terrorizes the city. This sequence was inspired by a real life scenario: 

The first of these is based on an incident that occurred in 2000, when Albert McFarland, the U.S. military mortician at the Yongsan camp, ordered two assistants to dump about 80 liters of formaldehyde into a sewage system that drains into the Han River.

The usage of chemicals on the citizens, Agent Yellow, late in the film is a reference to the real life Agent Orange used by the US in Vietnam. The entire US-Korean military association feels similar to that explored by Shin Godzilla (2016) a decade later which isn’t surprising given the presence of the US military in both South Korea and Japan after the 1950s. The Host also depicts propaganda, lies and a government cover-up around a virus which at the time of film’s release may have been a reference to SARS but seeing this film in current times clearly feels like eerily similar to what the last few years have been about (2020-2023). In terms of themes, the film evokes aspect of Steven Spielberg’s films in terms of emotional association with the monster who terrorizes the city.

Mother (2009)

Bong Joon-ho’s previous two films, Memories of Murder, The Host, have more darkness on screen than Mother but Mother dives into a deeper moral, ethnical darkness. The film strips away unneeded characters and scenarios and focuses on only the singular event at hand. As a result, the twists that arrive are more acutely felt as viewers have gotten to spend a lot more time with the film’s main two characters, Mother (Kim Hye-ja) and Son (Won Bin). There are some moments of dark comedy which help lessen the full impact of the material.

The film is bookended by two moments of levity. The film starts out with a dance that the Mother (Kim Hye-ja) does alone in the field and ends with her dancing along with a group in a bus. In the finale, as the Mother joins the group to dance, the sunlight bounces around making it hard to follow her but she is slowly absorbed as part of the group, indistinguishable from the others. Both dances are forms of liberation for the Mother but each feels different given the film’s context. The dance in the field feels like freedom as The Mother has accomplished her goal yet the one at the end follows a revelation that causes a bit of shame in her.

On another note: The cool jazzy end sequence feels like something that Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) depicted in his film as well but in the case of Burning, the sequence turned into seductive territory.

Snowpiercer (2013) 

I wasn’t a fan of this film when I first saw it a decade ago although my original reservations were associated with the content of the graphic novel itself regarding the class division structured via train compartments. This dystopian material felt akin to that depicted in many other sci-fi novels, especially Christopher Priest’s Inverted World where society lives in a gigantic wheel that slowly moves across the planet on train tracks.

However, I gained a new appreciation for Snowpiercer with this repeat viewing as the film feels more relevant than before. This timely relevance has to do one key change in the film’s story from the graphic novel related to how the ice age in the film begins. In the movie, a failed attempt by humans to solve climate change plunges the world into an ice age. This scenario feels more realistic as in current times, it is clear that there is no appetite in the world to solve climate change so the film’s doomed attempt to inject aerosols into the air as a last resort feels like something that we are heading towards.

There are a few other timely aspects in Snowpiercer such as the content of the protein bars. The protein bars in the film consist of cockroaches which alludes to our contemporary world. Until a few years ago, one could find insect protein bars in North America and people were encouraged to eat them as crickets and other insects were hailed as a sustainable protein supply.

Song Kang-Ho is brilliant in his role while Chris Pine and Tilda Swinton stand out. John Hurt and Ed Harris are playing roles they have done for their entire careers. In fact, Ed Harris plays his role as expected, delivering his lines in a calm calculated manner.

There are other aspects of the graphic novel that the film has changed such as the revolution where the rebels want to move to the front of the train. This change allows a dramatic arc which can be neatly packed in the film’s running time. The filmmakers nicely show the left to right progression through the train cars, which is aided by the camerawork and production values. There are some comedic flourishes throughout the film such as the relay race to bring an olympic like flame to shatter the darkness in one of the train cars and allow the rebels to overcome their foes in a bloody battle.

Okja (2017) 

Okja is the closest that Bong Joon-Ho comes to a Steven Spielberg film (specifically E.T.) in terms of depiction of an emotional bond between a human and animal. The Host hinted towards this but due to the destructive nature of the creature, the bond wasn’t realized but Okja is able to accomplish this as the super pig in the film is cute and its fate is at the mercy of decisions made by humans. Of course, Bong Joon-ho isn’t content to explore a simplistic human-animal relationship but layers the film with aspects such as capitalism, corporate structure and the military-industrial complex of US and Korea. Capitalism plays a key part in the film and that ends up being the saviour, not the environmental activists or any other traditional heroes. A gold pig, which was handed down to Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) by her grandfather, is the trading chip that helps in saving the super pig.

Mistranslation plays a key part in the film as K (Steven Yeun) doesn’t translate Mija’s word properly. Following that mistranslation, K tells Mija to learn English as it will "open new doors". However, this sequence isn’t properly translated into English as K’s words refer a Korean joke that wouldn’t have translated into English as per the director. This mistranslation takes on a new light given Bong Joon-Ho’s 2020 Golden Globe speech: 

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

If the little girl knew English, events would have taken on a different interpretation and understanding. Interestingly, if the audience understood Korean, then one can get the original Korean joke while understanding the different English translation.

Note: the start of the film is filmed at the Britannia mine just outside of Squamish, BC. I wasn’t aware of this aspect on the first viewing as I hadn’t visited the mine then.

Parasite (2019)

This film feels like the cumulation of all the cinematic themes/styles that Bong Joon-Ho explored in his career so far: dark humour, thrills, mystery, twists, social/economic/political commentary. Parasite is brilliantly constructed, executed and is completely accessible. The film is an easy entry point for anyone wanting to see their first Bong Joon-ho or even foreign film. His earlier films such as Memories of Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer contain some elements that may put off people not wanting to see a serial killer, monster or violent film. Parasite perfectly blends different genres together without making one genre stand-out thereby making it easier for people to view without being too shocked (some may still be due to a few scenes).

A few notes on the short films:

White man (1994)

Bong Joon-ho’s first released short film film feels like watching him find his voice by using elements from another director’s vault. In the film, a man finds a severed finger, which feels akin to the discovery of the severed ear in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. The man uses the severed finger as part of his day-to-day life which combines elements of dark humour and a commentary on aspects of middle-class vs lower income strata of society.

Incoherence (1994) 

This short film consists of 4 segments with the first 3 segments following different male characters. The fourth and final segment brings the men together and depicts the power they wield in society. The entire film oozes in social commentary and highlights corruption, double standards and hypocrisy. The humour is much more straight forward  and in-your-face than in Bong’s other films.

Influenza (2004) 

The visual language of this short is different from Bong Joon-ho’s features. The entire film is constructed from CCTV footage and the crime is far more brazen than those explored in his other films. Yet, there is a very thoughtful commentary on society at work and the impact of money and jobs on people. Also, the dark humour is there, albeit a bit more darker than those in some of his features.

Shaking Tokyo part of the feature film Tokyo! (2008)

This short stands apart from Bong Joon-ho’s other films in terms of tone and style. The film is a sweet boy meets girl tale with Bong Joon-ho’s own tailored twist. The main character is a self proclaimed hikikomori who has not stepped outside his house in 10 years and not made eye contact with another human for 11 years. That changes when he makes eye contact with a pizza delivery girl. The hikikomori is finally forced to leave his home to find the girl and learns that he isn’t the only one who stayed locked up in his home. The hikikomori learns that good things happen when one leaves their surroundings and interacts with others. Love literary shakes Tokyo up!

In a way, this short gives a vision of a futuristic 2020 pandemic world where humans stayed indoors and did not make contact with other humans.

Ranking all Features and Shorts in order of preference:

1. Memories of Murder (2003)

After a repeat viewing, this film still holds on as the best Bong Joon-ho film. 

2. Parasite (2019) 

A very close second. The most perfect distillation of Bong’s style. 

3. The Host (2006)
4. Mother (2009)
5. Snowpiercer (2013)
6. Okja (2017)
7. Influenza (2004)
8. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
9. Incoherence (1994)
10. Shaking Tokyo (2008)
11. White Man (1994)

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