5. Snowpiercer (2013)
A futuristic train makes its way through a new ice age caused by humanity’s efforts to reverse global warming, and the lower classes living in the slums at the back of the train violently try and fight their way to the privileged front.
Bong’s tentative step into almost-Hollywood is a gripping, gritty and violent future actioner with an eclectic ensemble cast. He demonstrates a real aptitude for visceral action and some of the late story turns are far bleaker than many sci-fi movies with Hollywood talent involved. For various reasons of distribution silliness, this one wasn’t available in the UK until 2019 without importing it, but ironically it really speaks to British class divides throughout history.
The subtext couldn’t be more blatant, and it’s really hammered home by comic book-exaggerated baddies and Tilda Swinton (again) with fake teeth (again) acting like Margaret Thatcher and talking like Arthur Scargill. Chris Evans convinces as a hungry (literally and figuratively) revolutionary and has support from respectable names such as Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell and John Hurt. Bong’s good luck charm Song Kang-ho also has an important role and I’m sure his late monologue is beautiful, if you speak Korean (his temperamental futuristic translator only offers occasional insight).
Director Bong trademark moment: The revolutionaries progress to a school carriage that looks like the vibrantly colourful set of a kids TV show spouting dangerous propaganda to their captivated young audience, and things get very bloody very fast.
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4. Mother (2009)
Mother is the story of a matriarch (Kim Hye-ja) trying to prove her disabled son Do-joon (Won Bin) innocent of the murder of a school girl through increasingly morally questionable means. If she can’t get help from the police, lawyers or her son’s few acquaintances, what will she resort to?
There’s little debate that Mother is Bong’s darkest and trickiest film. It also boasts the finest single performance in his filmography from Kim Hye-ja – from the delirious solo dance in a field she opens the film with to the darkest corners of the human soul she explores, she’s exceptional. We’re in a world of grey here, there are no absolutes, only questions and perspectives. But a mother’s desperation, dedication and unconditional love will carry her through anything. You expect this to not be a simple tale from the start, but you’re really kept on your toes by the twists and turns throughout, and nobody is let off the hook easily.
Again, like in Barking Dogs, the protagonists aren’t the easiest to like, but the raw and real turns by the cast in this murky mystery keeps the whole thing utterly compelling.
Director Bong trademark moment: Rich businessmen are questioned in a cramped police station over hitting Do-joon with a car, but will probably get off scot-free because Do-joon hit the car back, and it was a nice car.
3. The Host (2008)
A squabbling, highly dysfunctional family rediscovers their love for one another while attempting to rescue their youngest from a river monster (like you do).
Director Bong’s breakthrough with western genre fans, this is a constantly entertaining monster movie-soap opera. The creature the plot swims around is a an original salamander-fish-squid looking thing and is pretty impressively realised considering the modest budget of the movie and the fact that there’s no Jaws-like slow-build – it’s out in the open and in full daylight from the start.
The Park family are dysfunctional with a capital D. They are all failures in some regard (an inattentive dad, a university dropout, a mediocre athlete) and their inadequacies come to the fore after their youngest, brightest and most promising family member Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) is taken from them. Her uncle (Park Hae-il) plonks a half-finished bottle of booze in front of her memorial picture, her aunt (Bae Doona) presents her archery medal (bronze, her dad passive-aggressively emphasises) and the whole family devolve into children assigning blame. This moment makes the finale when they work together and take up arms against the creature all the more powerful.
Again, to open with an American scientist forcing his Korean subordinate to dump toxic chemicals in the Han River seemingly just out of spite is unsubtle, almost pantomimey, but Bong clearly has a lot in this world to get angry about.
Director Bong trademark moment: Following the river monster’s first rampage, survivors take shelter at a gym and the Park family hysterically fight and roll around on the floor in front of a shrine to the lost, including their beloved Hyun-seo.