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Bong Joon-ho

6 April

“Once you overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”

Our In Focus series examines some of cinema’s most beloved directors, highlighting some of the ingredients that make up their signature style, as well as showcase our top-picks of their best films. This instalment celebrates Bong Joon-ho, who recently took over the zeitgeist with his film Parasite, winning four historic Oscars at the 92nd Academy Awards including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film and Best Motion Picture.

Here are our highlights on what makes Bong Joon-ho’s films unique and our top three picks that prove Joon-ho a master of his craft:

One of Joon-ho’s self-proclaimed pleasures has been his playful approach to genre. His stories utilise common genre conventions – sometimes more than one – and build upon them to create a unique experience distinct with his signature. Evident across his body of work; The Host and Okja utilise the Monster film genre of the 50s and 60s, Snowpiercer is set within a science-fiction inspired dystopia, Mother a Hitchcockian suspense-filled melodrama and Memories of Murder uses slapstick comedy within a forensic procedural. He takes the familiarity of these genres and then weaves his darkly comic, empathetic and tension inducing sensibilities throughout, resulting in unpredictable combinations that feel wholly unique and defy tonal constraints.

Family Unit:
Easily seen in Parasite, where the film centres on a family as they navigate the façade of their employment with another family.  But if we look through his work, this use of the family unit and domestic drama is consistent. The Host, at its core, is about a family struggling against all odds to remain together.  Mother follows the strong relationship between mother and son as she endeavours to find evidence to prove her son’s innocence after becoming suspected of murder. Okja follows a girl on her journey to get back her beloved giant hippoesque pig (arguably a family member!).  This relatability of family is a primary reason Joon-ho’s work has resonated internationally, we can all empathise with the dysfunction of family, but the lengths we’ll go to preserve it also ring true.

Social Commentary:
All of Joon-ho’s films provide razor-sharp dissections of society and the governing forces around us. Parasite brilliantly encapsulates the class gap, The Host showcases Joon-ho’s native country of South Korea as a parasite (pun-intended) surviving upon the United States and its cultural exports, Memories of Murder and Mother explore the incompetence of forensic procedure and a wider corruption of bureaucracy and government, Okja delves into the environment, animal rights and hard-core capitalism, whilst Snowpiercer gives a vicious allegory of the class struggle for progression and survival. More than entertaining genre exercises, Joon-ho’s films layer upon social themes that propel the story forward.

Top 3 Films:

Parasite (2019)

Parasite is Joon-ho’s latest film and took the world by storm as the MUST see film of the past year (we played it for upwards of 8 months at some locations). The story follows the Kim family as they infiltrate the far-richer Parks family under the guise of “indispensable” luxury services of employment, but when a parasitic interloper threatens the Kim’s newfound comfort, a savage battle for dominance breaks out. A darkly comedic social satire, Parasite examines the huge divide in social class between two families but also shows the similarities between them. The film builds layer upon layer upon layer, crescendoing in a powerful ending that will have you going back and analysing every single shot.

Memories of Murder (2003)

Joon-ho’s tonally audacious approach to a forensic procedural genre, the film follows a pair of bumbling detectives who pursue South Korea’s first serial killer in 1986. The first film to cast long-time collaborator Song Kang Ho (Parasite, The Host, Snowpiercer) Memories of Murder manages to blend the cold-clinical approach of a procedural with a slapstick physical comedy that then doubles downs to deliver poignant moments of grief as South Korea’s people come to terms with the evil in their midst.  At the end of the film’s run, Memories of Murder was also the fourth most-viewed film of all time in South Korea, and Quentin Tarantino has named it as one of his top 20 favourite movies since 1992.

The Host (2007)

A political parable told within B-movie theatrics; The Host saw Joon-ho capture wider international attention with a story of a genetically mutated sea creature that rises from the water after contamination from an American military base. The film utilises traditional conventions of the monster genre but at its heart tells the intimate story of a family trying to protect one another. Full of Hollywood level special effects and blockbuster throwbacks, The Host shows that while spectacle might generate attention, intimate and personable connection is where a narratives’ power lies.

Joon-ho’s films are a melting pot of ideas, genre and personality that have produced a truly unique body of work that earns his spot amongst cinema’s great directors. After his wins at the Academy Awards, Bong Joon-ho received a letter from the master of cinema, Martin Scorsese. The letter celebrated his recent accomplishments but urged him not to take too much time off, as he and the rest of the world eagerly await his next project. We couldn’t agree more.

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