All this Bong Joon-ho in the air has me looking back on the Korean director’s greatest hits, if you’ll indulge me. And they’re organized here in a top five because, well, those are the rules.
Spoiler alert for Okja, Parasite, and Memories of Murder, if you can spoil true crime.
Number 5: Dog Hanging, Barking Dogs Never Bite
I’ll make this one brief because it’s horrifying, and to be honest, I saw this movie a long time ago and don’t remember much from it. But this moment stood out. I jumped out of my seat.
Even in his very first movie, Bong was shocking the audience. Violence against animals is a longstanding taboo all over the world, and for me, which is partly why I still have yet to explore another contemporary master, Kim Ki-duk.
Number 4: The Slaughterhouse, Okja
For more animal cruelty, we turn to Bong’s big Netflix breakout Okja. This movie wrecked me, and I knew it was gonna wreck me from the very opening, when little girl Mija and super pig Okja are living out their adorable Last Guardian life in the forest together. Like all of Bong’s movies, Okja bounces between genres and tone, and critical consensus I’ve gathered is the whiplash proved too much. Call it an unsuccessful expression of this directorial trademark if you must, but for the most part, it worked on me. And the long walk out of the slaughterhouse, the Pyrrhic victory, was the emotional climax I’d almost forgotten was coming. And it’s only step one, as when Mija returns home and we round back to the beginning, another Bong trademark, life may look the same, but a young girl’s eyes are now open, borne witness to the world we’re all responsible for.
Number 3: Trapped in the House, Parasite
I– this isn’t fair. You can’t pick one moment out of Parasite, there are just too many. There’s the flashback to the ghost, the peach montage, the basement reveal, and of course, when everything falls apart. I think for me, the tension of the couch scene brought the premise of the movie to bear. The stakes have been laid out and whether or not we’re on the same page morally as the Kim family, we don’t want things to fall apart. Though ironically, it would’ve been better if they did here.
Number 2: Train Tracks, Memories of Murder
For my won, Memories of Murder and Lady Vengeance are the pinnacle of the Korean New Wave, though I don’t know when the New Wave began or if it’s over. This movie is so powerful, so tragic, even recalling specific images to mind sends me down a despairing memory lane. The movie reaches its climax in the rain, as the two detectives on opposite arcs fight for a dwindling, distant abstraction of justice amidst rage and chaos. It works, despite its almost operatic edge which pushes it closer to Chan-wook Park territory. No matter what, Kang-ho Song’s face sells it. Gets me every time.
Number 1: The Monster Appears, The Host
There is another very good and very sad rainy sequence in The Host, but I have to give it to a moment watch habitually, this whiteknuckled daylight attack on the Han River, where the big and beautiful monster goes on its clumsy rampage, just as directionless as the screaming picnickers. It is a technical marvel that immediately recalls Children of Men, but it’s also personal for me. When I was a kid, I used to go to the beach a lot with my family, and I never really liked the beach, but I loved the ocean, and I always wished something interesting would crawl out of the water and make life suddenly fun. So don’t get me wrong: this sequence is very effective. It’s chilling and frantic and scary, but it also looks like a wild ride. How many times in my life have I wished a giant monster would suddenly appear? The Host gives me a pretty good indication of what it would be like. So thank you for that, Mr. Bong Joon-ho, and thank you for being the kind of Korean celebrity that 2020 America was absolutely ready for.