Since the democratization of South Korea in the late 1980’s, South Korean cinema has seen a new breed of filmmaker emerge, those who had moved from socially conscious filmmaking into a new realm of profitable blockbusters, aiming to replicate the success of their North American counterparts whilst also continuing to infuse a locality and regional sensibility within their films. One filmmaker in particular, Bong Joon-ho, has achieved particular critical acclaim within not only his home country, but also the Western world as he personifies the notion of the trans-nationalization of the East Asian film market and the ascension of new Korean filmmakers. Bong’s films begin as seemingly generic genre pictures, but through his combined use of complex characters, ambiguous settings and a startling technical proficiency, he instead ends up exhibiting genre subverting pictures which have since gone on to achieve high praise across the globe.
Born in Daegu during the latter years of the Third Republic of Korea in 1969, Bong Joon-ho’s mother was a retired elementary school teacher while his father majored in visual design and gave lectures on the subject. Around the mid-1970’s Bong and his family, including three older brothers and sisters, moved to Seoul and it wasn’t until his third year of Middle School that Bong had decided to become a filmmaker. A high achiever in middle school, Bong entered Yonsei University in 1988 majoring in sociology; it is here that Bong was able to start his career as a filmmaker by forming the ‘Yellow Door’ film club.
Not only did this club become incredibly popular requiring it to be split into three even teams (production, script and criticism) to accommodate all its new members, but it also allowed Bong to create and direct his first short film White Man (Baek-saek-in, 1993). After a brief mandatory spell in the South Korean military, he graduated from the university in 1994 and joined the Korean Academy of Film Arts, a government sponsored further-education institute. Bong was involved in a further minor short film titled Memories in My Frame (Prae-im-sok-ui Gi-eok, 1994), before his graduation film Incoherence (Ji-ri-myeol-lyeol, 1994) was exhibited successfully and invited overseas to be shown at various short film festivals.
Following on from graduating from the Korean Academy of Film Arts, Bong took an assistant director’s role on Park Ki-Yong’s film Motel Cactus (Motel Seoninjang, 1997), and he co-wrote the nationalistic action-thriller Phantom: The Submarine (Yuryeong, 1999) alongside Jang Joon-Hwan, however the following year would see Bong take the biggest step in his career so far, establishing himself as a feature film director with the release of his directorial debut Barking Dogs Never Bite (Flandersui gae, 2000).
Beginning his directorial career at the Korean Academy of Film Arts, Barking Dogs Never Bite was intended to be Bong’s break-out hit, a film which would set him apart from the other rising New Korean Wave directors at the time, but instead it was a failure. Made for 950million won ($800,000 est), Barking Dogs was ignored by both the South Korean public and the nations film critics, and despite gaining some overseas recognition after its release, Bong still acknowledges that Barking Dogs failure leaves him with an “empty, embarrassing feeling.”
Barking Dogs Never Bite is a common example of a filmmaker’s first foray into the feature-length picture business. It is beautifully composed and edited, but the narrative lacks any bite (sorry…) as the wannabe professor Yun-ju (Lee Song-jae) is portrayed as a lazy, gutless figure. In his quest to become a professor in a post-1997 Asian Economic Crisis environment, his best friend Ju-pyo suggests that he should bribe the head of the university to achieve his post-graduate position. Alongside his ethical dilemma, Yun-ju is also commanded around by his domineering pregnant wife Eun-sil (Kim Ho-jung), whilst also battling with his own conscience after accidentally contributing to the murder of a young girl’s dog which was driving him to insanity through its constant barking.
Yun-ju simply dallies through life, taking no responsibility for any of the acts he commits throughout the narrative, and when he does try to make amends for his past misdeeds, he is misunderstood by the young, Apartment administrator Hyeon-nam (Bae Doona) who is searching for the various missing dogs, and is once again left unpunished for the crimes he has committed. And this was one of the major criticisms by South Korean critics when it was first released, the unethical practices of Yun-ju’s journey is left unexamined and unpunished, while the dark, offbeat humor was seen to be out of place especially alongside the dream-like sequences which populate the second and final acts of the film. This is accurate criticism of the narrative considering that the only honest, hard-working characters of the piece are women who are left unemployed by the conclusion of the film, whilst Yun-ju prospers and succeeds.
Despite its narrative flaws, Barking Dogs is most notable for containing visual motifs that would be further repeated in his following three features. The use of slow-motion to document an important event within the context of the narrative (e.g. Yun-ju throwing the dog off the apartment complex and the monster’s initial rampage by the Han River in The Host), the use of underground, and/or darkened spaces to conceal the disturbing and horrific events from the public (e.g. basement in Barking Dogs and the drainage tunnel in Memories of Murder), and the repetition of the opening shot of the film at its conclusion. Barking Dogs Never Bite can probably be described as a competent first effort for Bong Joon-ho, but most importantly it allowed Bong to establish his distinctive visual style that would populate his next three films.
Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) on the left of frame and Detective Park Doo-man (Sang Kang-ho) on the right of the frame as they discuss the difference between the policing policies of the United States and South Korea.
His next feature, three years later would turn out to be his most critically acclaimed picture, until the release of Mother (2009), in the form of the detective-thriller Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok, 2003). Based on a spate of real-life serial murders that took place from 1986-1991 in the provincial city of Hwaseong in the south of the country, Memories follows the local detectives of unnamed Korean town as they are assisted by a detective from Seoul in attempting to find and apprehend the murderer. In synchronization with real life events, the murderer is not found by the conclusion of the picture, but the lives of all those who were involved are changed forever.
Local Detectives Park Doo-man (Sang Kang-ho) and his partner Detective Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha) have a penchant for violently abusing and coercing suspects into, what they believe to be, truthful confessions. But when a young girl is found murdered in a drainage ditch, the young Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) volunteers to transfer from Seoul to help the officers in their pursuit of what turns out to be a vicious and uncompromising serial killer. Beginning as a simple detective-thriller, Memories develops into an allegorical representation of South Korea strive for democracy during the late 1980s. The bumbling and violent detectives are representative of the authoritarian agencies who countered civil demonstrations with force and this theme is constantly reemphasized in his following two feature-films.
The 1980s were a tumultuous time for South Korean society. The assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979 by the Korean CIA director Kim Chekyu saw a brief period of ardent resistance from the Korean people. Chung-hee had run the country for nearly twenty years and now the civilian population decided it was time for reform. Many student and civil demonstrations took place, but many resulted in the use of deadly force by the Korean police force and military which was now under the control of General Chun Doo-hwan. The most notable of which was the Kwangju Uprising in May of 1980, with official records stating that over one-hundred and fifty civilians were killed in the ensuing conflicts between police, military and the countries inhabitants.
On the surface, Memories of Murder refers to the inability of the narratives central characters to shrug off and forget the horrific events they had become entwined with during the five year investigation. At the end of the picture, Park Doo-man returns to the site of the first murder, despite the fact that he is no longer a detective, he still cannot forget the fact that he failed to prevent the proceeding murders which followed. However, Memories can also be read as a picture which refers to the unforgettable memories of the 1980s and its preceding decades of authoritarian rule which led to the democratization of the country. In one scene a potential set-up to catch the serial murdered is foiled because the Chief of Police cannot obtain any more man power due to the “demonstration in Suwon City.” While rolling Civil Defense drills and black-outs taking place throughout the narrative, allude to the darkness that was forced upon the people of South Korea. Whenever the Civil Defense drills take place, it allows the unknown suspect to perpetrate his crimes; therefore Bong is alluding to the fact that it is not only the detective’s incompetence impeding the investigation but also the social and political structure of the country at that period in time.
Alongside the use of allusion and metaphors, Bong also extensively established his simple yet effective visual techniques and motifs. Another aspect which he continually reinforces, especially during the opening sequences of his films starting with Memories of Murder, is the long take which allows the audience to dwell upon the beauty of his films cinematography. Both Memories of Murder and Mother contain a long, established take during the opening segments of both films. In Mother during the films establishing shot, the camera scarcely moves at as it slowly and meticulously tracks mothers’ (Kim Hye-ja) movement in the corn field as she slowly begins to dance among the blowing weeds surrounding her body.
While Memories, contains a more sophisticated structure as the camera tracks and grudgingly follows Detective Park through a crime scene as he attempts to control the forensics team, the other detectives and various reporters and children who wander around in the middle, and the background of the frame reflecting just how unorganized the police force is as Park runs toward a tractor during the final moments of the shot attempting unsuccessfully to divert it away from ruining a potential foot-print in the mud. In a mere matter of moments Bong manages to visually establish the narrative themes of the incompetence and the absurdity of the South Korean police force through one technically outstanding sequence. Due to Memories success, Bong was almost written the fabled ‘blank check’ when it came to his next project, in which he decided to tackle a new genre altogether, that of the monster-movie.
Grandfather Park Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong), the young Park Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) and her father Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) watch their daughter/aunty/sister the Olympic archer Park Nam-joo (Bae Doona) on the television in opening of The Host.
Following Memories of Murder, Bong directed two short films that were both apart of larger retrospectives (Influenza, 2004; Sink and Rise, 2004) before directing his most recognized and accessible film in Western cinema today: the monster-movie The Host (Gwoemul, 2006). Starting out as a generic monster-movie, as the beast literally rises from the depths of the Han River due to the dumping of toxic waste by American military personnel (another real-life incident turned to fiction), The Host slowly unravels into a film that breaks away from genre as it becomes more about the strength of a family unit as they attempt to find and rescue their young daughter from the clutches of the monster. While Memories has so far been acknowledged as one of Bong’s most successful film critically, The Host is certainly his and Korea’s most successful film financially. When released locally in July 2006, it saw admissions sore to over thirteen million, a record for any South Korean film, and by the end of 2007 it had grossed over eighty-seven million dollars worldwide, while pre-sale rights overseas also soared.
The Host’s success originates from the fact that Bong chose a generic, yet internationally recognized genre in which to base his project around; the monster movie. Universal in its acknowledgment, whether it is the Japanese Gojira, the Americanized beast that is King Kong or even the Scottish Loch Ness Monster, every cinephile and average cinema-goer for that matter, can distinguish a monster movie from other genres. But again, Bong infuses a local sentiment within his films; all his characters are subordinate to the authoritarian powers within his unnamed city, which is predominately driven by the United States military. While their attempts to obtain any help whatsoever in the return of Park Gang-du’s daughter Hyun-seo falls on death ears due to the young fathers dim-witted behavior which his father Hee-bong attributes to the fact that Park Gang-du never had a mother, nor an attentive father as a child.
This aspect of family is what takes Bong Joon-ho’s The Host from being just another average, unoriginal monster movie, and turning it instead into a genre-subverting revelation which examines the social constructs of a family initially without a mother, and then without a strong patriarchal lead during quite a slimy crisis. Taking inspiration from M. Night Shyamalan’s film Signs (2002), Bong has admitted that the exploration of a dysfunctional family unit within confined spaces is what drove him to the project coupled with his ability to create suspense and tension through limited and confined spaces, which is also a recurring visual motif of Bong’s films. One scene which encompasses this aspect perfectly is when the Park family has been forced back into their shack by the creature amidst their search for the young Hyun-seo.
In the shack tensions reach fever pitch as Hee-bong attempts to gain support for his young son Park Gang-du during this testing time. Asking his daughter, the failed Olympic archer Nam-joo, and his son, the perpetual unemployed university student Nam-il, about Park Gang-du they both accept and reiterate that their sibling is “pathetic.” This saddens Hee-bong as he tries to frantically win them over by accepting all responsibility for Park Gang-du as not only a father, but also as a terrible brother and a negligent worker. His explanation is that without a mother, Gang-du was always going to need love, care and attention, but Hee-bong admits that he himself failed as father causing his own son’s downfall through his constant committed acts of seori (seori is hard term to define, it essentially concerns taking food, e.g. melon, without permission from a farm) and the beatings he received from the disgruntled members of the public he stole off of.
However Hee-bong is able to redeem himself through his own self-sacrifice to save his family, while Park Gang-du matures throughout the picture and goes from being a worthless father-figure into a strong, loving patriarch. He literally fights the entire authoritarian system to reach his daughter and the other captives in time and shows no fear, along with the other members of his family. Nam-il, who is seen constantly bemoaning the system for not giving him a job post-graduation puts his student life to use as he cooks up Molotov cocktails with a homeless man, while Nam-joo overcomes her inability to perform under pressure and in a Hollywood-esque moment she finally does ‘fire’ the arrow into the heart of the beast.
Another aspect which again is re-inscribed in The Host is the allegory towards Korean society. Initially it is easy to misinterpret The Host as an anti-American film. The invading foreign power is the United States military, and so was the human being who polluted the Han River with formaldehyde in 2000. Bong has admitted that he intended to ever-so-slightly satirize the United States, but not to any end. It is an anti-American film in some respects, but it does not relate to any global events post-1990 (for example, Iraq/Afghanistan), instead it references the United States supposed involvement in the student demonstrations, including the Kwangju Uprising, during the 1980s. There is no definitive evidence which either supports or refutes the United States suppose vocal support of the South Korean government in their violent suppression of demonstrations, but Bong is reigniting the memories once again of this tumultuous period through the perceived intervention of American forces during the 1980s.
This allegory also extends to the visual aspects of The Host, another brief, yet prominent motif of Bong’s is to include a visual representation of the suppression of a protest or demonstration. During the final act, the South Korean police force is shown to be forcefully pushing the citizens back who are acting almost peacefully, the most aggressive act they show is to pelt the police with fruit before Agent Yellow is released (in reference to the use of Agent Orange by Koreans during the 1960s and 1970s on the 38th Parallel rather than in reference to the United States military endeavors in Vietnam) as they stand united against the use of a biological weapon and the detention of Park Gang-du. Once again the government and authority itself is again shown to be the aggressor, as Bong visually alludes to the notion of repression through this long sequence, which also contains the recurring visual motif of the slow-motion sequence as the deadly, toxic gas engulfs five hard-line protestors who refuse to remove from they are standing. Centered on a local family, alluding to national events, and encompassing all the elements of a globally acknowledged genre, The Host not only put Bong Joon-ho on the metaphorical map, but also the infinite potential of a new, fully emerged transnational East Asian cinema.
After The Host Bong then returned to direct one of three episodes alongside Michael Gondry and Leos Carax in an anthology entitled Tokyo! (Dokkyo, 2008) which was moderately well received both critically and financially. Before returning to work on his fourth feature Mother, a return to the crime-drama genre as a mother desperately searches for evidence to prove that her son did not murder a young girl. Selected as Korea’s official submission for the 82nd Academy Awards, Mother was not nominated but has since then gone to achieve high critical acclaim from both writers and scholars alike.
Mother follows an elderly mother who battles tooth and nail to prove her mentally handicapped son’s innocence following the murder of a young girl in their unnamed town. Unable to simply accept his guilt, or allow a miscarriage of justice to take place, mother performs the duties of an aging sleuth as she interviews suspects, collects evidence and scrutinizes potential suspects in the lead up to the final act revelation of Moon’s Ah-jung’s killer. Her son, Do-joon (Bin Won) is rejected by all in society, the police believe the case is closed, a prolific local lawyer refuses his help after he realizes there is no publicity left in the case, but mother cannot refuse and let her only son live the rest of his disjointed life within the confines of a prison cell.
Jin-tae (Jin Ku, on the left of the frame) is constantly trying to manipulate and influence his friend Do-joon (Bin Won, on the right). Here Do-joon takes responsibility for an act Jin-tae committed because he can’t remember performing the act himself, but Jin-tae insists that the young man was the perpetrator.
The success of Mother is not surprising considering Bong is running over the same old territory that he covered with Memories, except with one substantial difference, the protagonist is now an elderly female character. Women in modern South Korean pictures of the last ten to fifteen years were generally associated with being destructive forces that threatened the sanctity of marriage, family and nation. But the elderly mother in this picture is anything but destructive, in the face of social and class pressure she is treated with contempt by the middle-class woman who she rents her work space off of, and is continually looked down upon as a fossil of an older generation. However, rather than drift into a succumbed generational position, mother constantly fights against the prejudice to place all her effort into her son’s case. After all the authoritarian characters who are supposedly concerned with Do-joon simply dismiss the young man’s pleas and his only hope comes in the form of his frail mother.
The recurring theme of the absurd authoritarian figures is again visible, but not as prevalent as in Memories or The Host. The detectives still happily resort to torture and intimidation in their pursuit of justice, but in one brief scene they are shown to be buffoons in front of the entire local community. Physical reconstructions of crimes involving the perpetrator are an important aspect of policing in South Korea, in Memories the detectives drag Kwang-ho to the crime scene within the meadow, while in Mother, and the detectives take Do-joon to the roof-top where Moon was found. On their walk up the staircase, the detectives struggle with the mannequin which will double for the victim and in the ensuing melee the head flies off the body and tumbles down before hundreds of local residents who are out in force to observe the events of how a large-scale police investigation is constructed.
Once more Bong is emphasizing the ineffectiveness of local authority to conclude their own personal duties by showcasing their inability to not only perform specialist duties, but simple ones too and this extends again to further reiterate his recurring theme of the developing repression from the state which gave birth to the democracy of the country in the late 1980s. Despite being set within the confines of a modern Korean town, the young schoolgirls all have the latest mobile phones and the rich drive powerful auto-mobiles, Bong had purposely left out any visual or verbal relation to the period of time in which the events are taking place or the location in which the town is situated. Yet visual motifs and on-screen characteristics also relate the period to the 1970s and 1980s through the décor in mother’s home and the clothes of herself and other elderly characters. The combination of the ambiguity of the setting and certain aspects of the mise-en-scene instantly evokes further memories of the tumultuous time of the 1980s in the viewing audience, which has so far been a constant, recurring theme throughout his feature-film productions. And Bong’s recurring visual motifs are also present throughout Mother, the dark, cramped alleyways in which the murder takes place, the constant use of wide-angle shots in which the aesthetic beauty of the photographed landscapes is shown, and most notably in the use of slow-motion to capture tension and suspense in Mother’s most memorable sequence.
Do-joon’s mother believes that Jin-tae is responsible for the young girl’s murder and that he is simply using Do-joon as a scapegoat. While the police refuse to listen to her concerns, she takes it upon herself to investigate Jin-tae’s small apartment herself in the hope that she may find a piece of evidence to acquit her son. However when Jin-tae returns home with his girlfriend, mother must hide in the closet, Bong choosing to utilize a close-up shot between mother’s eye which is watching the young couple through a small opening in the closet which observes her surprise, shock and eventual shame of the events she is witnessing as the young couple engage in sexual activity. Once Jin-tae and his girlfriend fall asleep, mother must navigate his bedroom floor, using a golf club as a makeshift balancing pole, the camera meticulously tracks her movements as she slowly evades any potential obstacles until she accidentally knocks over a bottle of water. Here Bong chooses to switch from a point-of-view shot from mother’s perspective to a low close-up shot of the water as it gradually moves towards Jin-tae’s dangling finger. Every movement by mother, in this situation is small and precise, but as Bong describes it himself “it may seem like nothing’s happening, take a close look using a microscope, and we may find microbes busily moving around,” and this is how Bong utilizes the camera, environment and characters in all of his films, by requiring the audience to look beyond what is simply on-screen and understand the verbal, visual and narrative context at hand as well, or as Bong Joon-ho would put: by placing the sequence under a cinematic microscope.
Photo of Bong Joon-ho (left) who was elected the President of the Camera d’Or awards committee at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and director Pablo Giorgelli (right), whose film Las Acacias was selected as the winner.
Bong Joon-ho, since the release of his first feature length film in 2000, has revitalized the notion of the traditional auteur. Not only does Bong write and direct his own films, but he also becomes heavily involved in the set-up and composition of specific shots within his films. He is part of the new breed of East Asian filmmakers who have thrived in both financial success and awards from taking conventional, generic narratives that would saturate any regional cinema across the globe and infusing them with local, and national South Korean sentiment, allowing the films to transcend territorial boundaries. In their initial viewings, Barking Dogs, Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother all seem like genre-pictures, but through the three-dimensional characters, anonymous locations and beautiful cinematography, Bong manages to relate heavily back to the development of South Korean society from the 1970s through to present day without losing any of the charm that has drawn the audience originally to the pictures.
Since the release of Mother in 2009, Bong has supervised the jury for the Camera d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and he has been working on an adaptation of Jacques Lob and Benjamin Legrand’s comic book Le Transperceneige, which is due to be released in 2012. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where the Earth’s freezing climate has made the planet uninhabitable, Le Transperceneige follows a group of survivors on board a train which travels on an endless journey where there is no final destination. The survivors are an eclectic mix of human beings from all walks of life, and the story follows them as they become friends and foes, engage in relationships and ultimately self-destruct within the confined space in which they are destined to live within until they finally succumb to death. Le Transperceneige seems to be a project that will suit Bong Joon-ho’s visual and written repertoire perfectly.
Availability of Bong Joon-ho’s films:
- White Man (1993) and Memories in My Frame (1994) are unfortunately unavailable. The only copy of White Man resides in the collection of Bong himself, while Memories in My Frame can only be obtained in the future if the Korean Academy of Film Arts decides to screen the short film at a film festival or release it online to the public.
- Bong’s graduate film Incoherence (1994) is available online. It is an episodic short film and the videos of these episodes can be found in many places online, including on the website WildGrounds (http://wildgrounds.com/2010/05/02/an-early-short-from-bong-joon-ho/) or even on YouTube itself in four separate episodes.
- Motel Cactus (1997), Phantom: The Submarine (1999) and Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) can be found on various websites across the internet (most notably YesAsia.com, Amazon.com and eBay.com), but their prices vary between $10/£6.50 to $50/£32.
- Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006) and Mother (2009) are Bong’s most accessible films and can be found on many websites across the internet (Play.com, Amazon.com, eBay.com) for reasonable prices.
However I will offer one word of warning, when buying from East Asian/Korean/Auction websites, make sure you check which version you are buying. Around two years ago I thought I was getting a bargain when I bought Barking Dogs Never Bite for just under $8/£5, but when I finally received the DVD I found it had been dubbed into Thai with German subtitles!