Since winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, “Parasite” has been a consensus favorite among critics, audiences and awards judges, and a coronation for its Korean director, Bong Joon Ho, who’s been a favorite in cinephile circles for years. But is there any consensus on what it is, exactly? Is it a thriller? A dark comedy? A family melodrama? A piece of social commentary? Even the meaning of the title is up for debate, perhaps recalling Bong’s earlier breakthrough, “The Host,” which was also perplexing when it was released in 2007.
Word-of-mouth recommendations for “Parasite” have boiled down to “just go see it, O.K.?,” because the less you know about the film going in, the more delighted you’ll be by its exquisitely calibrated series of surprises. It’s about a poor family infiltrating the lives of a wealthy one, but the way they do it — and what awaits both as they become more entangled — rewards the viewer with such diverse riches as white-knuckle tension, class resentment and great gales of laughter. It is genuinely unclassifiable.
As part of the New Korean Cinema that electrified the festival circuit in the early 2000s and beyond, Bong joined directors like Kim Ki-duk (“The Isle”), Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”) and Kim Jee-woon (“A Tale of Two Sisters”) in reinvigorating genre pictures with stylistic bravado and a willingness to play around with tone.
More than any of his Korean contemporaries, however, Bong has consistently defied categorization, with seven films that snake across the borders that normally separate creature features from family tragedies from grim procedurals from slapstick comedies. All of Bong’s seven features are currently available to stream, so it’s a good time to track the progression of one of the world’s most exciting and unpredictable filmmakers.
‘Barking Dogs Never Bite’
Bong’s feature debut, “Barking Dogs Never Bite,” (2000, South Korea) sounds like an intolerable affront to animal lovers, relating the story of an out-of-work college lecturer (Lee Sung-jae) who gets so annoyed by the yapping dogs at his apartment complex that he takes drastic action. That he proves utterly inept at dognapping doesn’t obscure his horrific efforts to silence every small pup that comes to his attention, nor does it prevent the janitor from contributing in his own macabre way to the missing-dog epidemic.
A satirical play on the popular Belgian story “A Dog of Flanders,” “Barking Dogs” ventured further into the outré extremes of Korean cinema than any of Bong’s later films have, but there’s a lightness and silliness to the comedy that takes the edge off a little. And the careful attention Bong pays to the apartment building as an interconnected organism makes the film feel like a dry run for “Snowpiercer,” which links train cars as humanity-in-microcosm.
‘Memories of Murder’
American audiences are so accustomed to seeing serial killer mythos unpacked in thrillers and documentaries that it’s nearly a genre unto itself, but what about a culture where such a phenomenon doesn’t exist? Bong’s one-of-a-kind policier, “Memories of Murder,” takes a tonally audacious approach to the investigation into South Korea’s first serial killer, a predator who raped and murdered 10 women in a rural backwater in 1986. In his first collaboration with Song Kang Ho, who’d later appear in “The Host,” “Snowpiercer” and “Parasite,” Bong calls on the actor to bring humor and pathos to the role of a local detective who investigates a double murder with his partner (Kim Rwe Ha), but quickly gets in over his head.
It wouldn’t seem possible for bungling physical comedy to coexist with the overwhelming grief of a region’s people coming to terms with an inexplicable evil in their midst, but “Memories of Murder” doesn’t allow one to take away from the other. There are moments of out-and-out slapstick, as the two investigators try various off-the-book methods to crack the case, and there are moments when the film considers this deepening tragedy with the full weight it deserves. In his own way, Bong is reinventing a type of movie that doesn’t have much precedent in Korean cinema.
Where to watch: Stream it on Popcornflix.
Although “Memories of Murder” brought him more acclaim and his first distribution deal in the United States, it was Bong’s 2007 monster movie, “The Host,” that really put him on the map. Laced with a potent critique of American imperialism, “The Host” begins with an American military officer dumping gallons of formaldehyde in the Han River, which results in a genetically mutated sea creature that rises from the water six years later.
The initial daytime monster attack is a marvel of Hollywood-level effects and wide-eyed Spielbergian looks, and the crowd-pleasing action accounts for why it was such a box-office sensation in Korea and elsewhere. Yet some distinctive Bong touches emerge, like the oafish snack-bar clerk (Song) who becomes his unlikely hero, the sincere emotion of a family in crisis and the coexistence of lowbrow yuks and satirical wit. “King Kong” and “Godzilla” have made creature features a universal cinematic language, and “The Host” helped Bong broaden his appeal across hemispheres.
After “The Host,” Bong could have made the leap to more commercial, English-language cinema, like Park went on to do with “Stoker” or Kim Jee-woon with “The Last Stand.” But instead he retreated to the ambiguous, small-scale murder mystery of “Mother” (2010). The extraordinary Kim Hye-ja stars as a widow who fiercely protects her mentally disabled son (Won Bin) after he’s accused of killing a local high school girl. Although the evidence against him is slim and circumstantial, she conducts her own investigation of the crime and takes drastic steps in the pursuit of justice.
Operating with more restraint and slightly less humor than usual, Bong takes the measure of the bond between mother and son and of how a parent’s instinct to believe the best about a child can obscure and pervert the truth. The wonder of “Mother” — and of Kim Hye-ja’s performance — is that its title character emerges as both multifaceted and fundamentally mysterious.
Four years later, Bong finally took a bold leap into big-budget filmmaking with the sci-fi allegory “Snowpiercer,” which plays like Stanley Kramer’s “Ship of Fools” (1965) if it were some combination of a postapocalyptic, “Mad Max”-style thriller and a devastating political satire. In 2031, after a global climate event has rendered the earth uninhabitable, the last remnants of humankind are packed aboard a high-speed train that will never stop and that no one can ever leave, for fear of certain death. In a none-too-subtle reference to Margaret Thatcher, Tilda Swinton hams it up spectacularly as the official in charge of enforcing the train’s brutal class system, which separates the grimy commoners in the back from the privileged elites up front.
The violent progression from back to front gives Bong an opportunity to comment on the stratification of this mechanized dystopia, which echoes the current conversation on economic inequality. His international cast of Americans (Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer), Britons (Jamie Bell, John Hurt), and Koreans (Song, Ko Ah-sung) is appropriate to the story, but it also looks ahead to a cinematic future in which the borders between cultures aren’t so strictly defined.
That globalist spirit informs “Okja,” which is about the merits and perils of living in our much smaller modern world. Just like “The Host,” “Okja” is about a supernatural creature unleashed by American environmental negligence, but here it’s a friendly, hippo-size super-pig, developed by an international conglomerate as a delectable food source. Of the first generation of super-pigs, raised in different locations around the world, Okja is the proudest specimen, but the 10-year-old girl who’s helped raise it in the Korean mountains (An Seo Hyun) isn’t willing to relinquish it so easily.
There are shades of “E.T.” in the bond between the child and her friend, but “Okja” is significantly darker and weirder, delving into extreme animal activism, insidious corporate spin and, in one unforgettably wry sequence, the song craft of John Denver. It’s also a deeply strange and semisatirical jab at corporate greed and omnivorous gluttony, featuring Swinton as the deranged scion of an international conglomerate, Jake Gyllenhaal as the deranged host of a kids’ nature show and Paul Dano as the deranged head of an underground animal-rights operation.
Where to watch: Stream it on Netflix.
After making two straight English-language films didn’t quite give him a toehold in Hollywood, Bong returned to Korea for “Parasite,” which, in a Bong-like twist, has catapulted him to mainstream recognition. Through the story of two families locked in class conflict, Bong comments on the gig economy, the gap between rich and poor, and how the haves subtly maintain their grip on power by playing the have-nots against one another. These are political themes that he addressed more explicitly in films like “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” but Bong keeps them just below the surface, as the engine that moves the plot forward. Where the film goes — and where Bong’s career goes after this — remains as unpredictable as his work.