Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Films of Bong Joon-ho: An Introduction

Bong Joon-ho made his debut film nearly 20 years ago, and since then has become one of the most interesting directors in the world. He was certainly part of the Korean New Wave, which made that country one of the hottest places for movies in the mid-2000s, although he’s always been somewhat different, somewhat less extreme than the likes of the great Park Chan-wook and the horrible Kim Ki-duk. He works at a measured, yet consistent pace – about every three years, we get a new film from him. Personally, I am more of a fan of some of his earlier films than the last two – both bigger budget, international films (Snowpiercer and Okja) – which are both still wonderful, just not quite as wonderful as Memories of Murder, The Host or Mother. I am happy that he is back, firmly in Korea, for his latest – Palme d’Or winning film Parasite, which is easily one of most anticipated films of the rest of the year, so I figured now was as good a time as any to revisit this interesting filmmaker.
Below is a ranking of the films – not including his debut, which I had never seen, or a short he directed in 2004 as part of a larger film, also because I had not seen it – but I will include it in the series. Once I’ve seen watched or re-watched all of his films – including Parasite (which I am seeing on the day it opens at the Lightbox – October 25th), (update  - I was wrong about when I could see Parasite, so I'll have a review up this week - but the schedule for this series won't change). I’ll be back with a new ranking.
Not Ranked: Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and Influenza (2004) – Joon-ho Bong’s feature debut Barking Dogs, and the short he made are two I haven’t seen yet, so I’m looking forward to watching both.
6. Tokyo! Shaking Tokyo (2008) – It shouldn’t be possible that Bong gets together with Michel Gondry and Leos Carax to make an omnibus film, and the result is this forgettable. I’ve only seen this once – when it came out – and to be honest, it’s all kind of faded away. I’m open to being proven wrong with a re-watch, but for now it’s the one film of his I have completely forgotten.
5. Okja (2017) – The weakest of Bong’s features (that I’ve seen) is still wonderful – its ambitious and touching, and wonderfully well-made, with “eccentric” performances by the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton and a larger international cast. I’m not quite sure it all comes together – but it does so much else, it doesn’t really matter.
4. Snowpiercer (2013) – Bong’s first international film – a dystopian sci-fi action film, where all of society is on a fast movie train, and the uprising it inspires. The whole film is brilliantly well-made, which car adding more wonderfully weird layers. I do think the film drops the ball in the end, which why it’s a little lower – but overall, a great film.
3. Mother (2009) – Bong’s follow-up to his international break-through The Host is a completely different film – and equally brilliant. The great Kim Jye-Ha gives one of the best performances you will ever see as a very committed mother, who will do whatever she has to protect her son – even if he is a murderer.
2. The Host (2006) – As far as giant monster movies go, The Host ranks right alongside the likes of Jaws as the best the genre has ever seen. As far as monster movies go, it is stylish and scary. It’s also a deeply felt family drama, as well as an intelligent film about how humanity brings this all on ourselves. This is genre film done right.
1. Memories of Murder (2003) – There were many films in the mid-2000s – like David Fincher’s Zodiac or Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia or Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police Adjective among many others, in which people examine a crime deeply, and find the answers less and less clear. Before any of them, there was Memories of Murder – a brilliant crime drama about cops looking for a serial killer, and cannot find him. It’s haunting, brilliantly well-made and acted. It didn’t get the attention it deserved when it came out – but has become a classic since. It deserves even more.

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