Bong Joon-ho has been making films for 20 years. Along with countrymen Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo, the South Korean is one of the defining directors of the last two decades. Several of his films, which include Memories Of Murder, Mother and Okja, have made best-of-year and best-of-decade lists. Yet, Hollywood is behaving like it just heard of him yesterday.
Bong has been living a charmed life since May, when Parasite won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Other festival appearances followed, then the US release. In the last couple of months, he and the cast have been touring with the film. And Hollywood can’t seem to get enough of them. Parasite has snapped up critics’ circle and guild awards across the country, the line “Jessica, only child, Illinois, Chicago" is a rare cinephile meme, it has won a Golden Globe for best non-English film, and garnered an unprecedented six Oscar nominations, for best picture, director, international feature film, original screenplay, editing and production design.
What lies behind Hollywood’s crush on Bong? It is partly because of the kind of films he makes—ostensibly “genre movies", slick, funny, not alienatingly foreign or arty. His darkly comic tone was in place from his first feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000). It was his second film, though, which announced him to the world as an uncommon talent. Memories Of Murder (2003) is based on an actual case (in the news recently for finally being solved) of a serial killer in late 1980s South Korea. Bong’s caustic tone and command over compositional tension raise it far above a standard procedural. Had he directed Mother (2009) next, he might have been pegged as the Korean David Fincher, but he swerved instead, directing a delirious and distinctive creature feature, The Host (2006).
Still, Hollywood has only opened its arms to Bong because it knew him from before. After four films in South Korea, he directed Snowpiercer (2013) in English; it had an American star, Chris Evans, in the lead, and was distributed there by The Weinstein Company. His next, Okja (2017), was in English and Korean, produced by Netflix and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Neither was quite as brilliant as his Korean films, yet it’s unlikely Parasite would have been enjoying the same success if they hadn’t happened.
Last year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, in Mixtec and Spanish, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won for director, foreign film and cinematography. Taken together, Roma and Parasite might be taken as a sign of the Academy’s increasingly open attitude to foreign cinema (though Roma was produced by Netflix, making it at least a little American). While it’s true that they are letting a select few in through the door now, the same caveat applied in Cuarón’s case as Bong’s. He has directed more English films than Mexican ones, including a big franchise feature (Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban) and a best director Oscar-winner (Gravity). By the time he came around to making his intensely personal black and white film, Hollywood saw Cuarón as one of them, not some intimidating foreign genius.
Parasite opens with the Kims, a family of four—Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) and their children, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam)—in their one-room “semi-basement". It’s a cramped, hardscrabble existence, but the Kims are all talented hustlers, and Ki-woo has a plan. First, he gets a job at a mansion tutoring a wealthy couple’s daughter. He then lays the ground for his sister to work with the couple’s young son (the scene where Ki-jung, entirely unqualified, sells the boy’s mother on “art therapy" is a comic gem). Soon, all four are working under the same artistically designed roof, pretending to have never met each other.
Just watching these four run rings around their shallow employers would have made for a funny, acidic variation on the home invasion thriller. But the film, like Ki-woo, has a grand plan. The mansion’s original housekeeper, Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), who was removed after an elaborate scheme by the interlopers, turns up on a stormy night. In a breathtakingly dark reveal, it turns out her husband has been living beneath the building, in a basement the owners never visit. His wife sneaks him food once a week—a supply that was cut off when she was fired. Now she knows their secret, they know hers, and Bong starts tightening the screws. All six are sympathetic characters but do horrible things—there’s no room for niceties when you are at the bottom of the societal chain. And so Parasite goes from a dark comedy about class to a horror film about class warfare.
Parasite is best considered in a double bill with another stunning Korean film. Lee Chang-dong is a very different film-maker from Bong, elliptical and poetic rather than wickedly smart, but Burning (2018) is as devastating a look at class divisions as Parasite. When a young woman disappears, her former classmate (and briefly, her lover), a solidly middle-class writer, becomes obsessed with the idea that her last boyfriend, a rich Gatsby-like aesthete, is somehow responsible. Both films explode into shocking violence, which suggests that even sensibilities as far apart as Bong and Lee reached the same conclusion: The class war, when it comes, will be ugly and messy, and the side that’s more desperate will prevail.
A couple of months before Bong’s film won the 2019 Palme d’Or, the best picture Oscar went to Green Book, a film even American critics had to admit was terrible. Parasite may only be in with the slimmest of chances on Oscar night, but it’s almost inconceivable that two films with such a gulf in artistry could be up for, let alone win, the same award. Year after year, a bunch of serviceable American films and a few standouts are pitted against each other and the film world pretends the discussion is about honouring the best of the year. Yet, hardly a year goes by when the best film isn’t made outside America and England.
South Korean film has changed the language of world cinema in the last two decades, especially in its approach to genre cinema (though there’s also the auteurist innovations of Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo). Three-four of the best-known directors working in global cinema today are from there. Yet, Parasite is the first South Korean film to ever be nominated for an Academy award. It’s a measure of how even the foreign language category of the Oscars misses entire seismic shifts in world cinema.
Every year, there are anonymous reports of Academy voters skipping non-English films because they don’t want to keep track of subtitles. Upon winning for best non-English film at the Golden Globes in January, Bong told the audience through a translator: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of foreign language subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films." The Oscars need Bong more than he needs them.
This piece appeared in Mint Lounge a few days before the Oscars, where, against all odd, Parasite won Best Picture.