Bong Joon-ho
His artistry is a bright light during a troubling time. (Illustration by Elizabeth Wong, University of Rhode Island)

Revisiting Bong Joon-ho, the Only Good Thing About 2020

As the world falls apart, we can find some solace in the works of the Korean filmmaker. Let’s take a look back at his various masterpieces.

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Bong Joon-ho

As the world falls apart, we can find some solace in the works of the Korean filmmaker. Let’s take a look back at his various masterpieces.

It goes without saying that 2020 has been an absolute dumpster fire of a year. But back in February there was one glorious moment: “Parasite” from Bong Joon-ho won best picture at the Oscars. Bong’s victory marked one of the rare moments when the Academy actually got it right, and the people rejoiced. Even by February the world was in serious need of relief and, in a brief glimpse of joy, we were offered Bong’s smiling face, proudly gazing down at his two Oscars as he pressed them together to make them kiss. It was wonderful. And then everything fell apart.

To be honest, there is very little to be excited about right now. COVID-19 is showing no sign of stopping and, regardless of what happens in the coming election, our democracy may have taken irreversible damage. So in this moment of turmoil, I have turned to the only good thing that 2020 has had to offer: Bong Joon-ho.

What separates Bong from his contemporaries is the earnest humanity in his movies. Despite their sometimes horrific imagery or subject matter, his films always feel imbued with a real sense of joy. The tone never comes off as jaded or self-important and there is something very whimsical about his characters. Perhaps this is why his pointed social critiques rarely feel preachy. Bong has become a master at creating messages that toe the line between accessible and obvious. In turn, he has become one of the most important directors working today.

“Parasite”

It’s easy to look down on best picture winners like Bong Joon-ho after the clamor of award season has passed, but make no mistake: “Parasite” is excellent. Each time I revisit it, I am astonished by how hard this movie goes. Its meticulous composition feels effortless, from the sharp pacing to the delicate balance of humor and tension. This is all to the credit of Bong as a director and the talent of the ensemble. Both families ooze with charm: the Kims in their boarish cleverness and the Parks in their delightful ignorance. This is best showcased in a scene involving a certain peach allergy in which the Kim family expertly advances their takeover of the Park home.

The level of execution on display here is stunning. The dizzying strings. The hot sauce. Cho Yeo-jeong. Everything is perfect. The juxtaposed shots of Mr. Kim’s performance in the car with his son coaching him are hilarious but also serve as a master class in editing and cinematography.

The scene encapsulates the heart of “Parasite” and everything that is special about Bong as a director. It is funny, thrilling and sadistic but doesn’t point blame at any one person. The Kim family is never depicted as wrong for trying to get ahead in a broken system. Even when they ruin the careers of others within their class, the audience is forced to consider what conditions create the necessity of these actions.

Similarly, the Park family is painted as kind and generous despite their wealth. It would have been easy to make them cruel and unsympathetic, but instead, Bong illustrates how they are complacent in an oppressive class structure while seemingly doing nothing at all. In the end, the “parasite” is everyone: the poor to the rich; the rich to the poor. This moral ambiguity has become the foundation of Bong’s directorial ethos. He is not interested in easy villains; he’s interested in systems’ oppression.

“Okja”

If you choose to watch “Okja” get ready to feel emotionally wrecked (and maybe never eat meat again). “Okja” was Bong Joon-ho’s second film to prominently feature English as well as Korean and was the last film he made before “Parasite.” It follows a young girl as she tries to save her pet “super pig” from the company behind it. The film works as both a delightful adventure and harrowing assessment of the meat industry. “Okja” draws from the cinematic lineage of films like “E.T.” or “Babe” and uses familiar tropes of humanized animals to push its message.

But as in all his films, Bong pushes these ideas to a place that is creatively and philosophically unique. “Okja” explores issues of class and the moral failings of the meat industrial complex with humor, horror and nuance. Bong opts out of taking the easy “eating meat is bad” approach and instead offers a refined critique of the systems that uphold the separation between food and the people that eat it.

The onslaught of documentaries condemning the meat industry never stopped me from eating meat. Yet somehow the film about the giant CGI pig may be what makes me change my ways for good. There are scenes in “Okja” that have been burned into my brain since watching it. Specifically, a line from Tilda Swinton’s corporate executive twin sister where she says “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it.” Bong has no problem diving into the complexity of the situation. Through her blind arrogance, Swinton’s character illustrates how issues of poverty are inseparable from critiques of the meat industry. Lines like this show Bong’s ability to provide damning information about the institutions that we support in ways that are impossible to ignore.

“Memories of Murder”

From the anti-capitalist action thriller “Snowpiercer” to the surprisingly funny monster movie “The Host,” there are many Bong Joon-ho movies to talk about. But I would be remiss if I did not mention “Memories of Murder.” “Memories of Murder” is undoubtedly one of the best crime dramas of the last 20 years and, along with “Parasite,” stands as one of Bong’s masterpieces.

The film is based on a real story in South Korea and follows three detectives as they try to track down a serial killer who has been killing young girls. Each man relies on an incomplete method of solving crime and throughout the film, they confront the fact that their flaws may be leading them to harm the lives of innocent men.

In typical Bong fashion, “Memories of Murder” is not particularly concerned with the main subject matter. The film focuses more on the failings of the police and justice system and the effect on the community than on finding out who the actual murderer is. The result is a masterfully contemplative thriller that builds to a harrowing end.

After the Oscars, in a since-deleted tweet, I wrote: “BONG SZN ALL 2020.” At the time, I did not consider what “BONG SZN” meant or what exactly it would be. Like most tweets, it was hasty with little thought behind it but I suppose the general gist was “good things to come.”

In this sense 2020 has not been “BONG SZN.” In fact, it has been the exact opposite.

But maybe “BONG SZN” has nothing to do with good omens. Maybe it has more to do with Bong’s films, rather than the joy of seeing his rewards. The unfortunate reality of “BONG SZN” is that this year has felt like living in a Bong Joon-ho movie. It feels like a dystopian tragicomedy that illustrates issues of class struggle and paranoia that arise within a broken system. Maybe this is “BONG SZN.” I can’t wait until it’s over.

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