Director’s Chair Introduction: Bong Joon-ho

by Tony Cogan · January 13, 2020 · Director's Chair · 2 Comments

Deadline: 8th February 2020

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Hello everyone, it’s time to announce who the featured for January 2020 is and, with the recent Oscar nominations showing him to be the first Korean nominee for Best Director, I’ve decided to highlight the films of Bong Joon-ho.

Now when Bong Joon-ho left the Korean Academy of Film Arts, following making a few short films there, he contributed to various other films before directing his first film Barking Dogs Never Bite, shooting it in the same apartment complex he lived in when he got married. Whilst the film does have a stronger reputation now, the critical reaction at the time was muted praise, although it got wider attention through showing at the San Sebastian, Slamdance and Hong Kong Film Festivals.

With his second film, he went to a much larger project, dramatising the story of a real life serial killer in South Korea. Production was a long process, setting a record for the number of locations used in South Korea, but upon release, the film was an immediate critical and commercial success, helping to save the production company that financed the film from bankruptcy and won numerous awards at the Grand Bell Awards, the South Korean equivalent of the Oscars. Bong’s next film brought him more international attention. Making his riff on the Kaiju movies, Bong’s next film, The Host, was a major stepping point for his career and for Korean cinema. Whilst there were initial doubts over whether a Korean film could create a believable monster, Bong pressed forward, working with effects company The Orphanage, who’d previous done effects for films like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Hellboy, to create the films monster, which was designed to look like a mutated fish and was clearly shown throughout the film. The film also acted as a work of satire targeting the American military and the South Korean government, which actually earned the film praise in North Korea. The Host premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the first of Bong’s films to do so, and upon release broke box office records in South Korea. A remake of The Host was announced in 2008, but has been in development hell since then.

After The Host, Bong went back into drama with Mother, which was another critical success and was South Korea’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars that year.

After Mother, Bong made his English language debut with Snowpiercer. The film also marked Bong’s first collaboration with a non-Korean writer with Kelly Masterson, based on how impressed Bong was by his work on Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. Working with the largest budget for a film with Korean investors at the time, Snowpiercer was noted for the strong production design of the train, making use of practical sets for most of the film, and Bong’s decision to keep everything related to the tail to the left and the engine to the right, emphasising lateral movement in the film. Whilst in post-production, The Weinstein Company gained distribution rights to the film and tried to hack the film to pieces. Bong was able to get final cut of the film but this resulted in the film getting a limited release for most of the world. Still, this was better than how Snowpiercer was treated in the UK where it only received an official release in November 2018, 4 years after it opened everywhere else.

After Snowpiercer, Bong made another English language film, this time teaming up with Netflix and working with journalist/screenwriter/former keyboard player with Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band, Jon Ronson. When the film first played at the Cannes Film Festival it was part of the anger by those attending the festival against Netflix films, with there being boos when the Netflix logo appeared at the first screening. After the film ended though it received a 4 minute long standing ovation.

His most recent film, Parasite, has become Bong’s biggest success. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Parasite won the Palme d’Or, becoming the first film to win it by unanimous vote since Blue is the Warmest Colour and it is currently the highest grossing film of Bong’s career, with a current box office total of $131 million worldwide. In terms of awards, it became the first Korean film to win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, became the second non-English language film to be nominated for Best Cast at the Screen Actors Guild awards, is the first Korean film to be nominated for BAFTAs aside from Best Film Not in the English Language and today, at the time of writing this, it has been nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director the first Korean film to do so.

As a reminder, I’m looking for any pieces you have on the films of Bong Joon-ho, if you need a reminder of his films I’ve listed them below.

  • Barking Dogs Never Bite
  • Memories of Murder
  • The Host
  • Mother
  • Snowpiercer
  • Okja
  • Parasite

I look forward to reading what you send me.