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There are many master filmmakers who are always around the block – presenting gritty and engaging cinema one after the other – but the cinephile in you is reluctant to watch their work – for it gets overshadowed by the great and well-promoted masterpieces each year, and eventually, many uncelebrated masterpieces get added to the cinephile’s already huge pile of watchlist. Until recently, these movies for me have been the South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s movies.
Having discovered the crafted-to-perfection ‘Parasite’ after its Palme d’Or win at the Festival of Cannes in 2019, I finally watched it around the fall season of the same year. The cinematic experience moved me and how! I realized that it is one of the bests of the entire decade, forget it being the obvious best of 2019. Having watched only Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) earlier, I henceforth watched rest of his directorials and since then, I’m in the awe of his witty and gritty cinema that strives to deeply impact you within – as Bong seamlessly changes the storytelling gears from dark humor to edgy suspense to an unforgettable tragedy.
Bong Joon-ho has deservingly created history in 2019’s awards season by sweeping almost all the prominent awards including the Oscars, which atleast I didn’t see coming – even though I wanted it to happen. Frequently collaborating with his friend and talented actor Song Kang-ho, Bong has a knack of exploring themes of class divide and man vs nature. He tends to end his cinema on an ambiguous note. Revisiting and celebrating his brilliant filmography, below I rank his movies from least good to best:
7. Okja (2017)
An environmental production namely Mirando Corporation produces a new breed of ‘super-pigs’ and sends them to farmers across the world for special care, with the idea of these grown-up creatures making way for more meat and the obvious profit. But as destiny had it, 10 years later, one of the pigs ‘Okja’ is shown as a dear friend of a girl Mija in the greens of Korea. Once declared as one of the bests of those superpigs’ breed, Okja is ordered to be sent to the United States for further testing.
If one has seen E.T. by Speilberg, the rest is predictable. Bong Joon-ho’s 2017 Netflix movie ‘Okja’ shines for having its heart in the right place, but that’s it. With an endearing performance by the child actor Ahn Seo-Hyun as Mija as the highlight, the film stays true to what it promises. The visuals, especially of the countryside Korea, are breathtaking. The theme of social messaging about animal cruelty is nicely maintained. But Bong has made better films..
The inception of Bong Joon-ho’s storytelling back in the year 2000 with ‘Barking Dogs Never Bite’ comprises all of the quintessential Bong elements. The confused laughs at black comedy, the top-notch cinematography, the intertwining of genres with a subtle message – these all seem too much to handle for a first-timer, not the case with Bong though. His command on the big picture is neat, and he never lets the screenplay never come across as cluttered.
The movie tells the story of a now unemployed college professor (Lee Sung-jae), who is sick of three things – his prolonged unemployment, his irritating wife, and the dogs around who won’t stop barking. So, he sets off taking frivolous to serious measures to solve the third problem atleast, which obviously puts Lee in situations that make way for all the Bong’s signature humor. The movie is a good standalone despite coming across as a little stretched in its 115 minutes of runtime. It is indeed the safe exploration of an already weakly written basic plot that lets it down. What could have been a notable character study certainly refrains from digging down much. Bong Joon-ho was always capable of doing so much more than this, which he does with his next in 2003. Also – if you love dogs, this movie is not for you!
Bong Joon-ho’s first English language film begins by portraying human’s failed efforts to reverse global warming in the year 2013, which lead to the dystopian times of ice age in 2031. The entire humanity alive is being carried by a futuristic train. Being a Bong movie’s train, it is obviously metaphorical – with the train’s head to tail compartments being the metaphor for the class division, where the oppressed live in the tail and the elites in the head part. The socio-economic status does improve as one keeps on crossing the aisle from tail to head.
The narrative traverses the journey of Curtis (Chris Evans), who through his action-packed efforts revolts against the elite rulers and constantly struggles to make to the head of the train. The end result though a visual spectacle, seems like a mess in retrospect – a neat mess. The cinematic ride with a great ensemble begins on a thrilling note and maintains the same for the most, but the one-dimensional baddie characters kill the excitement by the time the movie reaches the conclusion. Also, the third act could have been done away with a shorter version of Ed Harris’s futile speech. But deservingly, Snowpiercer got Bong Joon-ho more recognition from the West. A win-win for both sides.
After ‘Memories of Murder’, ‘The Host’ in 2006 became another game-changer for both Bong and Korean cinema. Being a distinct and gritty attempt in the almost-dead monster genre, it infused new life into the same with its freshness. Wonderfully, no time is wasted in the introduction of the monster, and the fear of the might only escalates from there. Several moments in the movie are jaw-dropping and leave you gasping for breath as one does not always tend to sense the random apperance of the monster on screen.
This high budget Korean movie is a commentary on environmental degradation, makes a blunt and brave political critique on America’s ignorant exploitation of the East and on the inefficiency of the bureaucracies around, while simultaneously taking care of the comic elements – credits to the terrific cast playing the dysfunctional Gang-du’s family the narrative is centered around – no wonder the movie raked in huge amount of money with all these factors working for its audience, making ‘The Host’ Bong Joon-ho’s second most successful film till date. As for the plot, I don’t want to spill any beans regarding anything. This monster mayhem is exciting and engaging. Watch it and experience the chills – man, they hit hard!
3. Mother (2009)
Bong Joon-ho’s fourth film ‘Mother’ tells the story of an unnamed widowed mother (Kim Hye-ja) and her unconditional love for her intellectually challenged son Do-joon(Won Bin) amidst unfavorable circumstances. After Do-joon gets accused of murdering a high school girl, the mother steers all unprecedented ways to prove her son innocent, for she assertively believes that her son would never do the crime.
My experience of watching this movie is sublime – for it is a poetic drama full of suspense with a tinge of right humor at right places. There is nothing such as black and white here, everyone has shades of grey. The movie tightly holds every suspect under the radar, making you use your gray cells till the end – actually even after it ends. The pitch-perfect cinematography adds to the eerieness and makes the film further unsettling. Bong injects his favorite kind of humor at places where one feels that it may go overboard, but the auteur doesn’t let it disturb the unpredictability of the narrative. The performances by everyone are first rate – especially Hye-ja, who perfectly complements her part with a subtle display of emotions. The editing work is done immensely well, making it arguably the most gripping Bong Joon-ho movie, but then his versatility knows no bounds either.
What to say about this history-making movie that its clean sweep at 2019’s awards season didn’t say out loud! One of the best Bong Joon-ho movies, it has put Korean cinema on the world map like none other. Bong is at his most versatile here, with the inclusion of all the elements he is celebrated for. It’s hard to classify this perfection into one genre. The movie starts as a family drama, then steers to comedy to turn into horror and eventually ends as an emotional tragedy. Each genre touched upon has been masterfully explored by Bong, with a message of class divide making its way seamlessly into the big picture.
To give away a little, it is about the mutual exploitation of the riches and the poor. Though based in South Korea, the appeal of Parasite feels so universal that the setting can be easily switched to London or New York. This is a new benchmark for Bong Joon-ho’s versatile storytelling and his grip on the same – it’s hard to take note of all the hidden symbolism in the first viewing. The mysterious Park house of horrors has been worshipped by the cinematographer Hong Gyeong-pyo in wide-angle frames, making way for one to suspect every possibility of eeriness, even in the unbelievably happy situations. The acting by ensemble further contributes to the excellence of the craft. All these positive cinematic forces do come together to make Parasite an unavoidable cinematic experience at any cost. A faultless and timeless piece of cinema. Respecct!
From Bong Joon-ho’s three movies I find faultless and perfect, ‘Memories of Murder’ personifies that perfection with its crème de la crème craft. Back in 2003, Bong presented this exhilarating piece of cinema on celluloid, making it one of the must-watch movies of all time. This is special for me – as it marks my introduction to the sea of Korean cinema. This remarkable cinematic piece established Bong as the craft master of multiple genres who can decorously blend them together into one picture. Tarantino himself has recommended this movie to everyone out there as one of his favorites – still I didn’t expect it to simultaneously amaze and shock me as much – but it manages the same with its gripping storytelling that feels original.
‘Memories of Murder’ is inspired by a series of killings in South Korea which took place between 1986 and 1991, and the quest by the police force to find that one murderer. The drama-mystery is one genre Bong excels the most at. Akin to Bong’s other movies, the drama here feels raw and real as we see the local officials struggling to solve the case amidst the lack of evidence and their clash of righteousness. As much is this journey horrifying and dark, so is it hilarious and amusing. The talented ensemble shines in their respective parts, but Sang Kang-ho in his first with Bong is the show-stealer here. The vanity of the gruesome process of searching a needle inside the haystack is haunting, so is the final shot of the movie feat. Song Kang-ho’s face.
P.S.: To the ones still ignoring Foreign movies due to language issues, no one put it better than Bong Joon-ho himself:
“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,
you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
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