While we weren’t looking, the countries we used to patronize for their charming but niche ‘World Cinema’ started making movies often classier, more interesting and definitely less woke than we do in the English-speaking world. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in South Korea.
South Korean directors have mastered the horror genre, with classics such as Train to Busan (featuring the modern ‘fast zombies’ on steroids) and nail-biting The Wailing. And thanks to Bong Joon-ho, they’ve cracked the commercial mainstream, too. Cinephiles have known he was great for sometime. But in the West, until Parasite won a triple crown of Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay in 2019, Bong was certainly no household name.
He may have just finished two new, hotly anticipated scripts — one in Korean, the other in English, but many of Joon-ho’s earlier films were cruelly overlooked by Hollywood. Bong hit back by cattily describing the Oscars as ‘very local’ in a bemused post-award interview. But he’s quite right to be so cocksure, for his pre-Parasite work is often at least as good as his Western breakthrough movie.
One of the things that Joon-ho gets so right is his casting. For some, he goes with the actors he knows and likes: Song Kang-ho is a staple (starring in all five of Bong’s best-known films), while Tilda Swinton features in two and Lee Jung-eun (the housekeeper in Parasite) appears — albeit not obviously — in three.
For the English-language films, the casts comprise of what you might call ‘favorite actors’ — the kind you particularly like as they featured in that cult film you love — for example, John Hurt (Midnight Express), Ed Harris (The Truman Show), Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko) or Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting). They’re versatile actors well-known enough that you recognize them and feel on familiar territory, but not iconic enough that you feel they’ve been shoehorned.
Joon-ho’s films also hit that sweet spot with their genre: they’re exciting enough to be blockbusters, but their subject matter is never hackneyed. They’re exotic enough that you pat yourself on the back for watching them, but not so far removed that you don’t understand and enjoy them. This recipe led to Parasite’s success as a ‘word-of-mouth’ film: it smashed the UK record for a foreign film’s opening weekend, and it became more notable not to have seen it than to have seen it.
The films themselves are so tautly controlled and paced that it’s impossible not to place Bong among the canon of great directors. Classical music is used to great effect, while scenes vary dramatically from ones intercut so smoothly, you’d think they were filmed simultaneously, to others that speak for themselves with stretched out ensemble staging. One of Bong’s actors, David Henshall, recalls how Bong ‘trim[s] the fat before [he’s] shot it, which is very brave’, filming only the scenes he’s going to use: nothing filmed is gratuitous. It is this sparing and succinct focus that makes Joon-ho’s dramatic subversions so potent.
Bong’s focus is also often not on the things you expect. In The Host (his 2006 monster film), the monster itself isn’t kept a visual secret: it’s shown very early in full, leaving the focus far more on the characters themselves than on the monster. It’s the characters’ nuances that are most fascinating. In Memories of Murder, for example, the best dynamic is not that of the two competing detectives, but that of the amoral local detective (Song Kang-ho again) and his suspect-beating sidekick (Kim Roi-ha). When the latter has to have his leg amputated for tetanus (injured in an edge-of-your-seat but strangely comic bar-fight scene), his usually unaffected partner is quietly devastated. There exists in Bong’s films the idea that life has a tendency to provide you with just enough to keep you going, but not enough to fulfill you. The palettes are grayed, with dirty urban environments, and a focus on food and its variants. Social issues are also nodded at but never laid on with a trowel, with nuances that a Western viewer might not at first appreciate, such as the Ram-Don meal in Parasite, composed of a combination of cheap and expensive foods: instant noodles mixed with a Korean beef more expensive than wagyu (see Binging with Babish’s recreation of it) that shows the fateful commingling of the rich Park and the poor Kim families, and the wantonness of the richer Korean classes.
Slavoj Žižek is also a fan, praising how Parasite ‘demystifies the poor’ where most films commit the ‘worst kind of patronizing’ by portraying the poor as always good: for Žižek, it’s not the reality. In Bong’s films, not being good is how you survive.
Yet the most important component of Bong’s films is comedy. Bong employs it in such a way that it realizes and heightens the effect of a scene, rather than reduces its potency. In Snowpiercer, for example, he has Chris Evans’s protagonist slip on a fish in the middle of a brutal battle, while in Memories of Murder, people keep on slipping down a hill at a murder scene, while children run around and a tractor runs over the suspect’s only footprint.
Bong’s humor helps elevate his films to greatness. From fights at the most importune moments, to crude bonding experiences between captors and captives, Bong leaves us delightfully off-balance: his worlds and characters are never clear-cut, and nothing is easy. There’s even comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in P.G. Wodehouse, like the two detectives in Memories of Murder who return to the crime scene, think they’ve spotted the killer, then realize it’s a fellow detective; then another man arrives at the scene wearing a pair of red panties (surely the killer???) whom they chase, and eventually catch. Even then, he’s not the culprit, just a desperately libidinous family man who has to find ever new ways to get his kicks.
It’s this tendency to play with genre — ‘black comedy’ being the preferred catch-all name — and the tropes of that genre that makes Bong’s films so fun to watch. Your expectations are going to be subverted; you’re just never sure how.
This article was originally published on Spectator Life.