Everyone’s talking about Bong Joon-ho right now, and it’s no wonder – he has made history, after all. Before 2019, outside particular circles of cinephiles, he would have been considered a relatively obscure South Korean filmmaker – that guy who did those two weird monster movies and that one with Captain America on a train. But, with the release of his latest masterpiece, the awards juggernaut Parasite, he seems to have finally become a household name in the West.
Director Bong has a lot to say about society past and present, but his approach to criticism usually comes via cutting, exaggerated satire and mocking governments, corporations and figures of authority by portraying them as incompetent, thuggish and unsophisticated. Bong is a filmmaker of contrasts – dark material with a vein of black humour, employing shambolic slapstick juxtaposed with slick action – but these odd tonal antitheses are usually in service of discussing some pretty serious subject matter.
Parasite finally shattered the glass ceiling for international films at the Oscars, so to mark this landmark moment let’s take a look back at all seven films from Director Bong’s unique filmography to date and rank them in order of excellence.
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7. Okja (2017)
Okja is an industrial food production satire where the fictional Mirando Corporation comes up with a marketing stunt to engineer super-pigs and send them to farms around the world for a televised competition, paving the way for a plentiful new sources of mass-produced meat. The corporation’s plan goes awry when one pig forms an unbreakable friendship with a girl in rural Korea and she has to be taken back by force, attracting the attention of eco-terrorists in the process.
Industrial food producers are shown to be pure evil, but the animal activists plotting to bring them down (typified by Paul Dano’s sharply-dressed but psychotic leader) are shown to be idealistic, zealous and frankly pretty thick. One of them is on the verge of keeling over with hunger because he’s in a moral quandary about eating anything that has ever lived. It’s not necessarily wrong to eat meat, but it is to live in complete and wilful ignorance of where it comes from.
Even Bong Joon-ho’s weakest film isn’t bad; it’s just more flawed than his other work. The titular precious porcine is a wonderful, expressive creation, while young Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija is one hell of a find and Bong’s love for all living things certainly comes across. But the villains (Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal), with their big fake teeth, safari shorts and metric tonne of physical tics are just too cartoony, undermining the passionate core message and any genuine threat this story should have.
Director Bong trademark moment: Okja’s clumsy and destructive escape through a packed Seoul market soundtracked by John Denver’s “Annie’s Song”.
6. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Warning: not recommended viewing for dog lovers. It’s not graphic, but it is distressing.
We follow an out of work college lecturer (Lee Sung-jae) who needs a new position to support his heavily pregnant and domineering wife (Kim Ho-jung), but who is also been driven to distraction by an incessantly barking dog in his block of flats. He resolves to silence the dog by any means necessary, but an eclectic group of local characters including a sinister caretaker (Byun Hee-bong) and a bored administrator (Bae Doona) are also taking an interest in the local pooches.
Barking Dogs is a strange film; a black-rom-com all about depression that is itself rather depressing to watch. Everyone’s got a mountain of issues and neuroses and nobody is able to communicate effectively. There’s ample material for a character study but Bong keeps his exploration surface-level and without lasting consequences.
The performances are endearingly odd and there are sporadic bursts of tension and entertainment value, but Bong is clearly still finding his feet here, and it’s really hard to empathise with any of these weirdos. That’s the thesis here – people are strange; so what?
Director Bong trademark moment: The frenetic foot-chase around a block of flats ending in a gag that follows a very unfortunate dog’s fate.
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