Even before Parasite, Bong Joon Ho blended art and entertainment beautifully
Memories of Murder
All hail Bong Joon Ho, who finally drove the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to honor a film not in English with the Oscar for Best Picture. Parasite‘s combination of biting (or stabbing) social commentary, twisty storytelling, and thrills worthy of any popcorn movie clearly struck a chord, with its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival setting off a runaway train of acclaim and enthusiasm that barreled all the way to the Oscars.
Bong, however, has been in the business of blending art and entertainment for his entire 20-plus-year filmmaking career. The filmmaker himself has disowned his debut feature film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, but his second, 2003’s Memories of Murder, displays all the hallmarks of his unique style, and that style would only codify further in each of his subsequent works. Here’s a beginner’s guide to some of the peaks of Bong’s storied career.
Memories of Murder (2003)
Based on the true story of the first serial killer case in South Korean history, Memories of Murder stars future Parasite star (and Bong’s perpetual muse) Song Kang-ho as Detective Park, who’s reluctantly paired with the more somber Detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) on the investigation. Bong emerged almost fully formed with Memories, which boasts the turn-on-a-dime tonal shifts (a running gag involves a detective repeatedly taking pratfalls) and precisely calibrated blocking and staging (Bong is almost peerless in placing ensemble casts before the camera) that would come to distinguish his filmography. The film is a work of top-notch craft, but also a supremely suspenseful thriller that displays an exquisite command of tension. At one point, the detectives realize that the killer always requests a particular song on the radio when about to strike, and Bong deploys Hitchcockian crosscutting to superb, nerve-fraying effect: we witness another victim walking toward her demise as the song in question sends the police scrambling.
The Host (2006)
Three years later, Bong would go bigger and bolder with a venture into blockbuster territory. The Host (2006) is the director’s first true masterpiece of genre pastiche, blending an environmental message with a first-rate monster movie. A chemical dump into a Korean river (again inspired by true events) creates a grotesque, amphibious creature that later surfaces to terrorize the local populace. It’s here that Bong first truly deployed the satirical edge that would permeate films like Snowpiercer and Okja, with a cutting depiction of the military and governmental bureaucracy. But the emotional core of the movie is Song’s exquisite turn as Gang-du, a clumsy, lazy snack vendor whose daughter is taken by the creature. The Host is right up there with Steven Spielberg‘s War of the Worlds in its depiction of how real people would likely react to a sci-fi disaster: panic, selfishness, carelessness, stupidity.
Bong also anticipated Parasite with 2013’s Snowpiercer, which dramatizes class struggle through the elegant, if obvious, metaphor of a train. Set in a future in which a botched attempt to stop climate change froze the world, humanity’s remaining survivors are all packed into the titular locomotive, with the haves at the front and the have-nots, led by Chris Evans‘ Curtis, at the back. Snowpiercer is both an action movie to rival the John Wick franchise — a set piece in which the speeding train winds around a mountain is exquisite in its choreographed violence — and a class parable for our century, with all the powers of filmmaking (costume design, production design, cinematography, etc.) weaponized to depict the vast chasm between rich and poor with a surplus of visual flair.
For anyone who first fell in love with Bong through Parasite, the one caveat is that his earlier work is less grounded, as the descriptions above no doubt suggest. But all of these films blend art and entertainment in a way few other directors in the world can, dancing on the line between the two with aplomb — or, perhaps, just erasing it altogether. Bong didn’t need an Oscar to confirm his status as a master of his medium, but gods of cinema willing, that gold statue will serve as a gateway for more people to confirm it for themselves.