by Nick Ward
In this series, I wish to discuss some of my favourite filmmakers and hopefully introduce people to some of their favourite filmmakers. In my first entry into this director series, I wrote about the sublime films of Austrian filmmaker, Michael Haneke. While I enjoy Haneke’s work for their meticulous direction and underlying social messages, in this article I’ll be writing about a director who I believe has perfected the art of dark comedy – Korean master, Bong Joon Ho. I’ll only be writing about his Korean-language films, as I have not really loved his English films anywhere near as much.
I got the opportunity to interview Bong at the Sydney Film Festival Closing Night Gala, where they screened his latest Netflix film, Okja, to celebrate the end of the festival. I was visibly shaking before the interview, rubbing my sweaty hands against the back of my jeans and attempting to keep a brave face in front of one of my favourite filmmakers. He is actually my first true idol that I’ve ever met, and I’m still so thankful for the amazing opportunity to even be in his presence.
In Bong’s films, he crafts a perfect blend of gritty tension and drama, with very humane, frank humour. There seems to be a debate amongst cinema lovers about who is really the greatest Korean filmmaker of all time – Bong Joon Ho, or Chan Wook Park (Oldboy, The Handmaiden). Both filmmakers emerged in the late-nineties and early-thousands, with comparable styles and visual references to be found in both films. In my opinion, Bong delivers much more human plots and messages, in contrast to the very provocative Park. I’ll most likely talk about Chan Wook Park in another essay sometime soon.
Breaking out onto the scene with his feature debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Bong had already started to assume his style of jet black comedy. The film’s plot is extremely difficult to explain, beginning with a man who decides that he must do something about the annoying barking dog in his apartment building. The film was awarded prizes at the Slamdance and Hong Kong international film festivals.
Three years later, Bong crafted what is today, said to be one of the greatest Korean films ever made – Memories of Murder. This film, and one of his later films, Mother, are both in my top 30 favourite films of all time. Not only is it one of the greatest Korean films of all time, but also, one of the greatest serial killer films of all time, spawning many imitators, such as David Fincher’s Zodiac. The film is based on the true events that took place in a small Korean during the late 1980s, where young girls were being found raped and murdered. This film follows the seemingly inept local detectives’ attempts at solving the case, until an officer from Seoul is brought in to assist, and they delve far into a tale of secrets, tension and violence. Every single shot in this film is a masterpiece in itself, often in long takes, with complicated choreography and camera movement. It could only take a filmmaker with the amount of talent and focus, of Bong Joon Ho. There’s a brilliant video essay on the way that Bong directs the dialogue scenes in the film here. The score, cinematography, editing and performances are all absolutely perfect. It also has probably my favourite ending to any film, ever, which I won’t spoil.
His next film was perhaps the first taste of his work, for most Western – the 2009 monster film, The Host. It follows a group of people, after a monster emerges from the Seoul river and causes massive amounts of damage and trauma, especially to Kang-ho Song’s character, when his daughter is taken by the monster, who runs away with the young girl in its grasp. This is probably Bong’s most accessible film, delivering a thrilling science-fiction tale, while still holding onto very universal themes and dark humour. In my opinion, the CGI for the monster really doesn’t hold up at all, and I have to try really hard to ignore the very dated effects. Besides that, I still really enjoy this movie, for the performances, pacing and direction. It also his most accessible Korean-language film, so I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in exploring his work.
Mother is my favourite Bong Joon Ho film, ever since I first saw it. This film is heartbreaking, dramatic and riveting, while also being hilarious and charming. Every single aspect of the film is pitch-perfect, from the breathtaking cinematography and stunning performances, to the dark, melancholic score. The film opens with what appears to be a dream, of an older lady walking through a large field, the grass moving along with the breeze. After a quiet moment, the score kicks in, and the woman begins to dance. The audience is both moved, but also extremely puzzled – automatically hooked, and eager to find out more. The film follows an older mother, and her mentally handicapped son, when the son is accused of murdering a local schoolgirl. The mother sets out on a path of vengeance, to find the true criminal. This film is an amazing character study of a mother who would do absolutely anything to protect her son, and can also be seen as a satire of the mothers’ role in the traditional Korean household. This film gives me goosebumps every time I watch it, and I cannot recommend it enough. There’s an essay on the way that Bong delivers character information in the film here (beware though, as there are spoilers).
That does it, for Bong’s Korean-language films. I love all of them, in particular, ‘Memories of Murder’ and ‘Mother’, which I consider to be some of the best releases to come out of his native country. His English language films, Snowpiercer and new-release, Okja, are in my opinion nowhere near as good. Part of me believes that this is because his style does not translate evenly to a Western cast and audience. If he took the exact same stories and aesthetics of both films, and instead produced them with an Asian cast and crew, I feel like they would be as highly regarded as his previous films. While watching Okja, I kept wanting the film to focus on the Korean characters much more, since I believe the style of the film was much more appropriate with their culture and language – I would trade the part of Jake Gyllenhaal for Kang-ho Song any day of the week.
For those who have not seen any of his films, I would recommend you watch Mother or The Host first, since they are great introductions to his style and aesthetic. When I interviewed Bong at Sydney Film Festival, the final question I asked him was an obvious one – What advice would you give to young filmmakers? He replied with something like “Make a film that you, yourself, are satisfied with”. I will forever take that piece of advice on to my future short films, and will always be first in line to see whatever he releases next.