Shining the Spotlight: Director Bong Joon Ho

You’ve probably heard about the Oscars record-breaking, history-making film, Parasite. Yes, taking home the most awards at the Oscars this year, it has stood as the first foreign production that triumphs over the top prize, Best Picture! And the biggest pillar behind this incredible production is the one who also secured this year’s Best Director title, Bong Joon Ho

It is not the first time Bong has produced such a pragmatic, realistically-centred film with a whole range of spectacular picturesque scenes and emblematic panoramas. This inner-directed filmmaker — who’s never reluctant to challenge himself with refreshing changes in his directing and producing — is always creative in his portrayal of social themes. So, in this episode, I’m going to shine the spotlight on Bong, and how his films are remarkably superior in his own genre.

Tone Shifts & Dark Humour

If you want to define Bong’s cinematography in a few words, you would probably aim for the “sudden tone shifts” or “slapstick humour”, or even “dark drama”. During his early years, Bong participated in a few collaborations and gained his experience as a cinematographer of short films. Having held the position of a lighting technician in shorts, he always has his own way of portraying certain scenes, which contributes greatly to his insertion of various tone shifts in the films. If you watch Bong’s films, you will often find yourself amazed by the tricky art of his tone-hopping scenes. 

I remember watching his first film about a real murder-spree that takes place in Hwaseong, South Korea. Bong injects quite an amount of humour in the film besides the somewhat disturbing and dark subject matter. It is often confusing watching Bong’s films because of its stark contrast of tones, but all of them do come with an intention. In Memories of Murder, the tone shifts are frequent and bold. It goes from a satirical, foul-mouthed arguing scene sequencing to a gripping, thrilling case-investigating take; the mood is indeed frequent and quick, but necessary.

Memories of Murder (2003)
One of Bong’s earliest films, Memories of Murder (2003)
(Source: IMDb)

Another masterpiece, Mother, is a film which starts as a character comedy – but then in its most delicate and precise way, it turns into an intense revenge-thriller drama. With strong profanity, bloody violent imageries, interrogation, drugs and crimes, the movie might be the most challenging task Bong has set himself into. All these sensitive elements were squeezed into a two-hour long film. And through these serious moments, Bong still attempts to drop bits of humorous lines from time to time.  

Kim Hye-Ja stars in Bong Joon-ho's thriller "Mother."
The Mother
(Source: Deseret News)

Allegories, Social Statuses & Impressive Set Designs

Cleanliness. It is another aspect that Bong puts a huge emphasis on in his films. You might be wondering or considering cleanliness as the environmental aspects or hygiene in general, but nope! The cleanliness of his characters and venues actually signify the social system, or even perhaps the political system. In Parasite, Kim’s family constantly struggles to uphold their living circumstances in cramped quarters. They have to always beg for the mercy of filth and penury; from daily searches for unoccupied Wi-Fi connection to consuming free meals provided by volunteering programs. It especially struck me with the explicit difference between the high and the low when the Park’s family was cheering for the showering rain as an act of clearing pollution, while for the poor Kim’s, the rainfall was an instant, total “home” destructor. 

ellie on Twitter: "this moment in parasite... just speaks for ...
Kim’s house overflowed by the flood
(Source: @odairannies on Twitter)

The effort Bong puts into his set designs is another thing you should applaud for. He is well-known for his unique filming style, in which he prefers utilising real filming locations or specially-built sets instead of green screens. And most of his sets are built from scratch! One symbolic feature he foregrounds in Park’s house is the stairs, in which Bong shoots scenes of them walking up the stairs. On the other hand, the Kim’s have to always walk down an alley to reach their underground home. As Bong stated, “Each character has spaces that they take over or infiltrate, and there are also secret spaces that they don’t know.”, the dynamic of space also contributes to the notion of descending into density that reflects the class ranks between elevated areas and lower basements.

The dynamic of space also contributes to the notion of descending into density that reflects the class ranks between elevated areas and lower basements.

Bong likes to play around with symbolic analogies, and the way he does it is just mind-blowing and so, so realistic. Taking The Host as the best example, people might think “Oh, it’s just another Sci-fi monstrous-based movie!” However, when you look at it closely, the monster is an allegorical monster of human evil. An evil that doesn’t even need to disguise itself, an evil found in the state forced who exploits the opportunity to manipulate his most vulnerable people, strips his citizens of their rights. 

Why Anyone Who Cares About Korea Should Watch “The Host” | Cinema ...
A scene in The Host
Source: Cinema Escapist

Nam-il and his jobless state represent the unresolved torment, further depicting the consequence of injustice established by a higher power. It is Bong’s intention to remind the society of the long history of political division suffered by all people societies as he calls his characters in the film “a relay race of the weak”. I recall a conversation in the film between Nam-il and his father where he questions the existence of the virus to which his father answers dully: “If the government says so, we must accept it.” While the sense of humour is still embedded within, the anti-authoritarian sentiment is painted in its clearest way. Again, isn’t that a pattern of theme we see in Bong’s production?

The Host 10 Years Later
The Host‘s casts
Source: Cine-Asie

To further expand on the theme of social ranking in humanity and human desires, Bong even worked with screenwriter Kelly Masterson on a science-fiction action film that is hinged on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. The co-production between the two dots the first English-language film written and directed by Bong. 

15 new Snowpiercer pics take us inside the last train on Earth
A scene in Snowpiercer (2013)
(Source: Collider)

The movie begins in a post-apocalypse season, having the fictional Snowpiercer train operating on a globe-spanning track. The train consists of the left-over remnants after a reckless attempt at climate engineering which results itself with a Snowball Earth. The train is not just an ordinary train; rather it is a physical form of societal propaganda, symbolic with echelons of different levels. The depiction of class welfare and oppressive aristocracy is boldly embedded in the characters’ movements. Snowpiercer was a challenging track for Bong as the shooting location is of a limited space – the train itself. He and his director of photography had to constantly work within the frame, going from left to right. This is to make sure the sense of direction is clear from the tail section (left) to the first tank (right) when the scenes are being shot. 

I wanted to maintain that energy, and give the audience a sense that whichever way the shot is moving, that’s where the characters are going. That was a very important discipline.

–Joon Ho, Bong (Vulture)

Snowpiercer' Finally Gets Release Date Along With 'Jobs' and Jason ...
The casts of Snowpiercer
(Source: The Film Stage)

Before he produced Parasite, Bong also made his move on a film about the food industrial complex, marching towards the criticism of the world of propaganda. Okja, a genetically-modified super pig with the size of a medium elephant, is the lead character of the titular film. The movie casts its lens on the nastiness of humanity and the cruelty of global inequality through the relationship of Okja and Mija, an orphan. The pig is symbolic as a physical property of a multinational corporation and the fact that she is determined to go through animal slaughter places her as a victim of the cynical commercial exploitation.

Okja : Jacob Burns Film Center
From the movie Okja
(Source: Jacob Burns Film Center)

It is indeed a roller coaster ride studying Bong Joon Ho and his films. His outstanding creativity in constructing his point of view of the human world is something I really admire. Attached below are the trailers of Bong’s films, check them out if you’re interested! Don’t forget to check out these amazing directors, too!

Until then, #BongHive unite!

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Memories of Murder (2003)
The Host (2006)
Mother (2009)
Snowpiercer (2013)
Okja (2017)
Parasite (2019)

Written by Vicki Lai Yee Tong

Cover photo credits: The Harvard Crimson

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