Something is forever bubbling up from beneath the surface in the films of Korean director Bong Joon Ho, be it the literal basement dwellers of Parasite (social) climbing their way into a wealthy family’s modernist manse; the mutant creature that rises out of a polluted Seoul river in The Host; or the victims of a sadistic serial killer, which keep multiplying in number despite the hasty efforts of police to close the case in the astonishing Memories of Murder. In each of those tales, there is something inevitable and immutable about that which rises out of the boggy muck. It is something that has come to shake polite, conformist society from its comfortable stasis, to reap and to reckon. These are nothing less than apocalyptic visions—postcards from the brink—yet rendered with a grace that says we are all in this together, and that humanity stripped bare may be humanity at its most essential.
With this Darwinian gaze, Bong (who was born in 1969) shows his kinship to one of his acknowledged masters, Japanese director Shohei Imamura, a rhapsodic vulgarian who was to the scorched earth of post–World War II Japan what Ozu was to the tatami mat. Like Imamura, Bong hails from a bourgeois background but has devoted himself to chronicling the underclass, with a particular affinity for enterprising hustlers (like Parasite’s Kim family) foraging their way through a world that is decidedly stacked against them. The rich, to the extent they figure into Bong’s work, are mostly there to be eaten. But Bong is equally the product of lurid Hollywood entertainments—Peckinpah, De Palma, John Carpenter, and other genre maestros—surreptitiously consumed via a TV network for American military personal stationed in South Korea; a free film school beamed into the young Bong’s living room, minus the “one-inch barrier” of subtitles.
Perhaps it is no real surprise, then, that Bong’s films have struck such a resonant chord with audiences around the world who do not typically indulge in “foreign” films. Genre—not Korean—is his true mother tongue, and arguably no director since Quentin Tarantino (a friend and admirer) has taken such pleasure in using the familiarity of genre to lure audiences in, only to then, gleefully, upend our expectations. This approach was already evident in Bong’s Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), which turns a nondescript suburban apartment block into a human fishbowl where assorted Sisyphean figures—a graduate student angling for a professorship; a bookkeeper turned amateur sleuth; and a gourmand janitor—dodge the metaphorical boulders life keeps hurling their way. Although little seen at the time, it was (like Tarantino’s own Reservoir Dogs) one of those auspicious debuts that feels like a primer for everything that will follow—part class comedy, part detective story, part live-action Looney Tunes cartoon, burnished by Bong’s rare ability to love all of his characters, even (or especially) when they are at their most selfish and deplorable.
Three years later, Memories (2003) was Bong’s breakthrough both at home (where it became one of the most successful local films of all time) and abroad (playing extensively on the festival circuit and winning Bong best director at San Sebastian). It remains his only film based on true events—a series of murders in the 1980s in the Korean province of Hwaseong that would go unsolved for three decades—though Bong is markedly less interested in the question of whodunit than in how the investigation reveals the existential malaise of a nation living under the thumb of a repressive military dictatorship. It also marked the first of Bong’s four collaborations with the gifted leading man Song Kang-Ho, a deadpan sad sack in the tradition of the great silent-film comedians and the perfect vessel for channeling Bong’s currents of ennui, pathos, and unlikely heroism. This is a partnership on par with De Niro and Scorsese, Dietrich and Von Sternberg.
Since Memories, Bong has steadily alternated between high-concept sci-fi/fantasy projects and more intimate character pieces, though regardless of their scale, the movies return time and again to the elemental struggles of the under-seen (the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the otherwise disenfranchised) to be seen; of parents to protect their children (one film is called, simply, Mother); and of nature itself to rebound from man’s efforts to destroy it. The Host (2006), the first of Bong’s films to employ elaborate CGI, is a reworking of the Godzilla/Kong mythology in which the beast gobbling up swaths of Seoul residents evokes an odd pity from the audience—not least because it is the product of Uncle Sam’s unchecked toxic dumping. Snowpiercer (2013) is richly imagined class warfare on a Titanic-like super-train rocketing through a second ice age—and a rare example of an international filmmaker working in English, with Hollywood stars (Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris), without compromising an inch of his vision. Okja (2017), featuring Swinton x2, takes an interspecies friendship tale out of the Disney/Spielberg playbook and turns it into a phantasmagorical nightmare for burgeoning vegetarians. No wonder Bong has said he has no interest in making Marvel movies: in terms of sheer imagination, he has long ago outpaced that franchise behemoth. Indeed, it is Marvel that should be wondering how it can make movies more like Bong Joon-Ho.
Which brings us back to Parasite (2019), a movie Bong made back home, in Korean, for his smallest budget in a decade, which has nonetheless become the biggest international success of his career, winner of the Palme d’Or in Cannes and six Oscar nominations, including three for Bong himself (as writer, director, and producer). True to its title, it is a movie that gets its hooks in you and doesn’t let go—a tale of two families who begin as mirror images of one another and, by the end, have each passed through a kind of funhouse looking glass, with devastating consequences for both. It is a movie that feels at once blisteringly timely in its portrait of social stratification stretched to the breaking point, and timeless (for the same reason). Thus it is only fitting that the movie leaves us with the image of a blinking, Gatsby-esque beacon—a father’s ghostly message to his son, which seems to say: “And so we beat on, hogs at the trough of life, borne back ceaselessly into the abyss.”