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What do serial killers, amphibious critters, over-protective mothers, ultra-greedy corporations and everyday South Koreans have in common? They’ve all crawled out of Bong Joon-ho’s mind and into his seven films to date, including his latest and one of the year’s greatest, Parasite.
Exploring the vast chasm between those at either end of his homeland’s class system, the writer/director’s Palme d’Or-winning thriller really couldn’t have a better title. Following the linked lives of two families — one ultra wealthy and oblivious to their privilege; the other poor, struggling to get by and willing to do whatever it takes to survive — it not only probes the accepted social order prominent throughout the capitalist world, but ponders who’s really feeding off of whom. Of course, Parasite’s moniker also offers a nice case of symmetry with the movie that first brought Bong to wider fame, 2006 creature feature The Host. It might not seem like it at first, but the two films share another crucial trait as well: they both demonstrate Bong’s fascination with monsters in many forms.
When Bong made his first big cinematic splash with The Host, breaking South Korean box office records, nabbing awards, and attracting acclaim around the world, he did so with a good ol’-fashioned creature feature. In the process, he let a monster loose in the literal sense, with a giant beast wreaking havoc on Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) and his family (including his daughter, played by Go Ah-sung, and his sister, played by Doona Bae). The cause: the illegal American dumping of formaldehyde six years earlier, contaminating the Han River and sparking an unnamed critter to life in its depths. The consequence: widespread chaos caused by a slimy, creepy and unpredictable creature with a ravenous and savage taste for children. It’s Bong’s spin on Godzilla, in a movie that makes a similar statement about its setting as that iconic Japanese monster behemoth did a half-century earlier.
When it comes to the state of Korea in the aftermath of the Korean war, including the impact of America’s involvement, there’s plenty for The Host to rampage through. Bong’s film isn’t subtle with its political commentary, nor shy — but staring right at its monster, seeing it in all of its glory and recognizing its destructive effect is the movie’s point. Bong isn’t being clumsy, lazy or simplistic with his obvious approach. Instead, he purposefully draws attention to overt, lingering and catastrophic evil in plain view. He also does so elsewhere throughout The Host, because the huge critter isn’t the feature’s only source of insidiousness. At multiple levels, this is the story of the strong decimating the weak because they can.
Monsters come in many guises in The Host, although that’s true across Bong’s entire filmography. In his darkly comedic 2000 feature debut Barking Dogs Never Bite, the horrific side of ordinary apartment-dwellers comes into focus after aspiring university academic Ko Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) makes a series of drastic moves to get a coveted job — and, in an unrelated problem, to rid his crowded residential tower of yapping canines. Both aspects of Ko’s plight are highly relatable, tapping into the common quest to move up in the world and to simply enjoy a peaceful life. When he’s pushed to his limits, his actions are hardly typical, but the motivations behind them spring from the same source as many other everyday choices. He just wants to be comfortable, secure and happy, and he’s willing to trek down unthinkable paths to do so. When the building’s maintenance worker and bookkeeper (Doona Bae) starts investigating a missing dog’s whereabouts in the fallout from Ko’s actions, Bong reveals that Ko isn’t alone in tapping into the darker shades of human nature, while positing that modern-day life rarely offers much of an alternative.
Turning to the real-life story behind his country’s first serial killings in 2003’s Memories of Murder, Bong also let a shadow fall over average South Koreans. The gloomy presence blights not just the victims brutally slain by the culprit, or the police driven to obsession to solve the case, but society in general. When women keep turning up dead, fear ripples through small towns and big cities alike. It’s 1986 and, with limited forensic technology to chase the few leads that arise, lead detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and his colleagues are left constantly chasing their tails. The threat of monstrosity — the knowledge that a monster lurks in the midst, but can’t be caught — is a deeply unsettling force in this devastating drama, which earns a place alongside cinema’s best crime procedurals. Just as distressing is the flipside to the movie’s pervasive unease, as seen via the lengths that Park and his fellow cops are willing to go to in their efforts to catch the killer.
Questionable as Park and company’s choices can sometimes be, and worse, their actions are inspired by good intentions. That description also fits Bong’s Mother perfectly. Focusing on as twisted and devoted a mother-son relationship as has ever been committed to the screen, the 2009 drama follows a widow known only as Mother (Kim Hye-ja) and her developmentally disabled son Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) after he’s accused of murder. The extent of their bond, and of Mother’s efforts to protect Yoon, ride a rollercoaster through comedy and mystery to thrills and horror. Again, Bong contemplates just what someone will do when a fire is blazing in their belly, and again, it makes for weighty and meaningful viewing. At times, he’s in the same urban crime realm as Memories of Murder. Often, he draws similar conclusions about the disturbing impact of South Korean life as he layered through Barking Dogs Never Bite. As an intimate character study that delves deep into the monstrous deeds we can all be driven to, however, Mother is unparalleled in Bong’s filmography.
When the applauded auteur made his English-language debut with 2013’s Snowpiercer, he took his regular thematic concern to the world. Here, it wasn’t just the grind of South Korean society that left its citizens feeling miserable and even monstrous, but capitalism across the globe. In a dystopian situation that may yet prove eerily prophetic, climate change has decimated the planet. Alas, humanity’s efforts to combat it have just as disastrous an effect. The remnants of our species survive on a constantly moving train, called Snowpiercer, that circles the icy earth — but even in the locomotive’s confined cabins, a class structure that places the wealthy above the needy is in place. As the downtrodden inhabitants of the train’s rear, such as Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gilliam (John Hurt), rebel against the engine’s head honchos (Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris), Snowpiercer exposes a bleak vision of a system that values wealth and status over flesh, blood, heart and soul. Bong is at his most kinetic here, as well as his most scathing; laying bare humanity’s worst instincts in close, post-apocalyptic quarters will do that.
Leaping from the grim to the goofy, Okja served up a monster in plain sight — but it also played a game of bait and switch. Compared to other farm stock, the 2017 film’s super pigs are all monstrous in size; however the titular giant swine is also the adorable best friend that farm girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) will do anything to keep safe and alive. So, Bong takes audiences through the evil that surrounds this innocent kid and her affable animal pal, especially the company exploiting them for publicity while planning a brutal and highly lucrative endgame. He also explores the urge within us all to consume, and what it means to willingly bite into the flesh of other creatures that have lived and breathed. Always at his most blatant and least textured whenever there’s a gigantic critter involved, the director finds a winning blend of comedy, action-adventure, science fiction and societal commentary in this touching tale, taking aim at both the meat and the fast food industries, and famously inspiring many a conversion to vegan among Okja’s viewers.
Monsters that stalk the streets, monsters that fester inside, monsters that tower above, monsters caused by or capitalizing upon a callous and uncaring world — they’re all part of Bong’s monster menagerie. And in a fashion, they’re all part of Parasite as well, even though there’s nothing that resembles The Host’s beastie or Okja’s cute super pig in sight. As the struggling Kim family work their way into the Park family’s lavish lives, all kinds of devious, duplicitous, cruel and unkind traits come to the fore, showing what humanity is truly capable of. Of course, to the man behind it all, a monster and their environment are inescapably intertwined — an idea Bong has been examining for nearly two decades, and one that Parasite may as well shout from the lush garden of its opulent mansion setting.