4. Memories of Murder
Bong Joon-ho followed up his feature-length debut Barking Dogs Never Bite with what’s considered by many fans to be his best, and at least seems to be his most popular, the crime mystery-thriller Memories Of Murder. Inspired by real events and based on a play (which explains a lot) Memories Of Murder draws attention to the Hwaseong murders – South Korea’s first serial killings.
This was so unheard of in South Korea, even in 1986 when these began, that a new task force was assembled to investigate and the film details how their lack of education, their lack of experience, their abuse of power, and their reputation for such contributed to a lack of results. A large part of South Korean cinema in general also manifests itself here for the first time in Bong’s work, and throughout his next films, in how it criticizes South Korea’s criminal justice and law enforcement systems.
Neither of the two main police detectives in Memories Of Murder attended or finished college, they’re both hotheads, and they both rush to get the case closed at all costs – and their chief is right behind them. They’re known for torturing suspects, even the innocent ones, until a professional detective from Seoul volunteers to assist the investigation, thus becoming (more or less) the film’s moral code.
The complexity of these characters is heavily owed to the film’s play-based script and also explains how Bong was forced to use the art of cinematography to advance the story forward and to enhance the characters’ intricacies. It’s not Bong’s flashiest film visually but it is the one that takes most advantage of the camera being a storytelling device.
But if Memories Of Murder is his most popular and his best according to his fans, then why is it only #4 on this list? Well, to be quite honest, although it’s a fantastic movie and has much of his trademarks, it’s still the least Bong-ian.
Yes, he flawlessly weaves comedy in a film with such dark content, it has amazing cinematography and an ensemble casts that puts in 110%, but much of the film’s success can be credited to the simple compelling nature of the story. Everybody loves a murder-mystery and even one’s Agatha-Christie-loving grandmother may be able to stomach this one, because Bong is actually relatively shy in showing the gruesome acts the film revolves around.
The film can be screened for free with an Amazon Prime account.
After the big-budget, box office smash that was The Host, Bong Jong-ho wisely chose to scale it back to something much smaller and more personal – a story about a mother protecting her mentally challenged son from prison – and it’s one of his best. It sounds like some schmaltzy Oscar bait though, right?
This is Bong Jong-ho, remember? So of course the relationship between Yoon Do-joon (the son) and his mother (never named) is strange and vague. So of course the plot is going to have some legitimately twisted twist and turns. After Bong’s own mother saw the film she did not speak about it for 7 or 8 years. It probably made her wonder what kind of relationship her son thinks they have. Pretty amusing for us to think about, not so much for her.
The film is equally dramatic, funny, and even haunting. The acting is stellar, the camera gets creepy, the pacing is tight, and the script asks several questions: should at some point a mother’s unconditional love become conditional? When can a mother’s love go too far? If a mother can have so much love, can they also have so much evil?
Currently streaming on Netflix.
2. The Host
Throughout his career Bong Jong-ho has made a wide variety of films: both an animal abuse movie and an animal rights movie, a crime mystery-thriller, a family horror tragicomedy, and a sci-fi action train film. Thus it should be no surprise that he once made a creature feature.
The Host is that creature feature. Except, it’s a lot more than that. The Host might be the most and best genre-blended film Bong’s made. To be more specific, it’s basically a dysfunctional family comedy disguised as a satirical-socio-politcal-sci-fi-horror-monster movie.
Like most monsters in monster movies, the monsters are symbolic of something in order to make a broader statement or to spread a specific message, and Bong’s The Host is no different. Inspired by the real-life incidents of South Korea’s Han River being polluted by bottles and bottles of formaldehyde, and the subsequent lack of efforts from both SK and US government agencies, the monster of The Host is a metaphor of government incompetence and military negligence. Hardly anything disagreeable.
The film can be seen on TubiTV, the free streaming service.
Bong Joon-ho comes into full bloom with his best film to date, Parasite. It should be of no surprise to anyone if this goes on to sweep more and more awards throughout the year, possibly even getting an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (but don’t count on those ol’ bastards), because this film packs everything Bong is and miraculously hints that Bong just might have a lot more up his sleeve in the coming years, that he may in fact just be warming up.
After filming two American-Korean hybrid productions back to back, Bong returns to his home country completely for the first time since 2009’s Mother and the freedom, the relief can be felt right from the get-go. It’s also his first non-sci-fi film since then and Bong relishes in the opportunity, milking it for all its worth.
Parasite follows an envious, lazy, unmotivated lower-class family of social leaches that manipulate and scam their way into free stuff as they reach new heights (or new lows) when one of them gets a job tutoring for a rich family, the Parks. They orchestrate a brilliant chain of firings to replace all of the Park’s personal employees while hiding the fact they’re all related.
It’s the class comedy of the ages, that is, until a shocking discovered is revealed nearly halfway through the film. However, this particular twist is becoming a sort of cliché now, at least in American cinema lately, but because of Bong’s amazing cast and top-notch storytelling skills that he’s been developing for nearly 20 years now, Parasite sits high and above all those other films – putting them to absolute shame.
Similar to how the Coen Brothers put their worldview on full display with The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, Bong Joon-ho puts his on full display with Parasite and is even the antithesis to his own Snowpiercer, completing the statement he’s been making for a while: humanity sucks. It doesn’t matter how much money one makes, what class one is a part of, nobody is off-base in Bong’s philosophy and Parasite is him being unafraid to say that.
Of course, this film is not yet streaming anywhere. So you might have to wait until it hits your local art-house theaters. If you don’t have any art-house theaters near you, well, c’est la vie. You will have to wait even longer, when it becomes streamable or available on physical media.