Fish monsters, barking dogs, and roach patties: The films of Bong Joon-ho
Late last year, Ars picked Parasite by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho as the best movie of 2019. Last weekend, so did the Oscars. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that 100 percent of Academy voters must read Ars.
After recovering from our self-congratulatory champagne showers, however, we were stunned to see Bong's earlier films poorly represented in our archives. I've come to rectify that, since the South Korean writer-director fits into the Ars mold of creepy, stylish, and cutting-edge filmmaking.
My experience with Korean filmmaking in general…
Because I'm basic AF, my first exposure to Korean cinema was when the jury at Cannes (headed by Quentin Tarantino) awarded Oldboy the 2004 Grand Prix. From there, I watched the rest of Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy and The Handmaiden as well as making my way through flicks like The Chaser, A Tale of Two Sisters, A Hard Day, Attack the Gas Station!, and Train to Busan. If you've heard one thing about Korean films in general, it's that they are violent. I am by no means an expert on every movie put out below the 38th parallel, but I am reasonably erudite about the Korean films that US distributors have seen fit to bring stateside in the last couple decades as part of what's called "New Korean Cinema." This reputation for violence is partly warranted and partly marketing.
A popular theory is that this cinema of bloodshed is a response to Korea's rapid industrialization over the past half-century. South Korea gleams with skyscrapers and high-speed rail, its Internet is the fastest in the world, and its health care is second only to Taiwan. (Meanwhile in the United States, our trains are slower than cars, our infrastructure is crumbling, medical costs are skyrocketing, and every third article at Ars seems to be about how hard it is to get broadband into rural areas.)
But all that came with a price. I remember hearing/reading/dreaming, through some combination of Wikipedia and NPR, that South Korea urbanized faster than any nation in history. The social bonds of an agrarian society were broken, and the result was the highest suicide rate in the G20. Much of the world has struggled through the transition of rural-to-urban-to-globalized, but Koreans seem to have done it on fast-forward, all while the threat of destruction from the North has loomed.
Starting in the late '90s, this sense of dislocation led to a cinema awash in violence that is both bloody and up-close. Baseball bats, kitchen knives, golf clubs. "Hammer time" does not mean dancing. The only straight-up gunfight I can think of is in 2010's The Man from Nowhere, which rivals John Wick for being the Citizen Kane of sad-hot hitmen movies.
The softer side of New Korean Cinema
The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw recently made a list of "Classics of modern South Korean cinema" that included several kinder, gentler examples of New Korean Cinema, like House of the Hummingbird and Take Care of My Cat—and guess how many of them are on Netflix, Amazon, or YouTube? Not many. In good news, Peppermint Candy, about a guy throwing himself under a train, is currently included with Amazon Prime.More subtly, characters often give off a vague hint of "faking it," like they aren't convinced they belong in this gleaming world of flip phones, skinny jeans, and skyscrapers. But they definitely aren't convinced they belong anywhere else.
Another theory is that US distributors of South Korean films simply like violent movies with an undercurrent of social dislocation and have artificially created the impression that all Korean films are sad and violent because they've ignored all the rom-coms, musicals, and family films. In fact, the Korean movies that distributors predicted would be the most successful stateside may say more about our current moment than anything on the peninsula.
The important thing is that either theory will let you sound all galaxy-brain at someone's Oscar party.
… and Bong in particular
But enough of my not-at-all-nuanced take on someone else's culture. Enter writer-director Bong Joon-ho. His social commentary movies feel like sci-fi, and his sci-fi movies feel like social commentary.
Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Humans were not meant to live like bees in mammoth concrete apartment buildings. In much the same way that the mansion is a character in Parasite, the star of Barking Dogs Never Bite could be its apartment complex, with its endless hallways, indistinguishable balconies, and forbidding basement. Characters stare out its windows at the neighboring forest and talk about how they need to get out more; the building isn't so much "next door" to the forest as "slowly invading it." Even when Our Guys get outside, they're mostly surrounded by oceans of parked cars that they never drive (these are train folk). I'm not even sure we see cars driving in the background.
In a Hallmark movie or a truck commercial, their woes would be rectified by moving to a small town or by becoming barrel-chested farmers. But Bong's first feature-length film acknowledges that, in a world of nearly 8 billion souls, those solutions are too resource- and space-intensive to be scalable. And his working-class protagonists couldn't afford a Ford F-150, anyway.
Of the assorted weirdos we meet in this 10-story cinderblock, we mostly focus on a hapless grad student and the perkiest bookkeeper in the apartment's office. He needs money to bribe a dean so he can become a professor, and her job mostly consists of trying not to fall asleep at her desk. They cross paths when his neighbors' yappy little dogs go missing. Little yippy dogs are perfect for Barking Dogs Never Bite: 20,000 years ago, they were bloodthirsty pack-hunters but have since been domesticated for a world where they don't quite fit, and they protest regularly through their yips and yowls.
As befits what is essentially a melancholy hang-out movie, Bong's direction is the most laidback that it's ever been, although he does get in some terrific tracking shots during some foot-chases. Like a downhearted Jacques Tati, comedy comes less from jokes than from people behaving in sad-but-relatable ways. Barking Dogs is also the first of Bong's four collaborations with actor Byun Hee-bong, who can best be described as having "resting disappointed-by-life dad" face.
Full disclosure: I hadn't seen Barking Dogs until this past Wednesday. I would have watched it Tuesday except I already had swear-to-God plans to make kimchi.
Memories of Murder (2003)
Bong's sophomore effort was a critical and box-office smash. The movie is based on a series of unsolved, real-life murders from about 15 years earlier. The local police are wholly understaffed, under-resourced, and under-prepared for the victims they find in a ditch. In short, they are not ready for the brave new world in which they are forced to inhabit. It's been a minute since I've seen Memories of Murder, but what I mostly remember are grassy fields and forest paths with perpetual concrete construction going on in the background, as if big-city construction workers are perpetually on the verge of digging up more corpses.
Amidst all the lost evidence, tainted DNA, and beaten suspects, our hero detective is convinced that he can tell who's lying and who's telling the truth just by looking them in the eye. (He's played by Parasite star Song Kang-ho, bringing his puffy-dad energy to the first of his four movies with Bong). The detective is an analog, folksy holdout in a digital, big-city world. For most the movie, I didn't believe him—until Memories ends with him staring at the camera and, presumably, the real killer, somewhere in the audience.
As for that killer, The Man may have caught up with him last year.
The Host (2006)
The Host might have the best monster origin story EVAR: a minimum-wage tech whose lab has just gone out of business is ordered to pour all manner of nasty-ass chemicals down the drain. (The Host's only rival in this regard is The Return of the Living Dead.) From there, we go to a struggling, multi-generational working-class Seoul family that's caught between political protesters and, oh snap, a giant fish monster on the loose. The family eventually faces the monster not with cutting-edge, high-tech weapons but with pump-action shotguns and a compound bow. Song Kang-ho and Byun Hee-bong return as sad dad and sad grandpa, respectively.
Mother is a murder mystery at the desperate fringes of society set in a city that looks like a bomb just went off. I saw it at a screening hosted by Rice University. So, good job there, Harvard of the South! An unnamed Mother (Kim Hye-ja) hopes to prove her difficult son is innocent of a girl's murder, and along the way, one underfunded social service fails her after another. The United States is divided between those who think failing social services need more funding and those who think they shouldn't exist at all. The police prove incompetent and her lawyer is unreliable, so she has to solve the murder herself. Whereas so much of Parasite is clean glass, open spaces, and wide-angle lenses, Mother is none of those things: everything is run down and shot in long lenses so that our heroes look crushed by their bleak surroundings.