Fifty-year-old South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has made award-winning, box office hits for close to two decades. Yet he had not gleaned the attention of mainstream American audiences until the 2019 feature, Parasite, which he directed and co-wrote. Parasite won four major Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It has made approximately $270 million, as of mid-March, and it currently is being adapted as an HBO series.
For those who have not yet seen Parasite, the story deals with a poor family, the Kims-- a mother, father, and two young-adult children-- who can’t find work that puts adequate food on their table. They live in a hovel and, despite their abilities, can’t even keep jobs as pizza box folders! When the son gets the opportunity to become tutor to the daughter of a wealthy family, the Kims lie their way into cushy jobs in the rich peoples’ home. They misrepresent their credentials and do not reveal that they are members of the same nuclear family. The rich folks are a very easy mark.
Parasite is a black comedy as well as a drama, a story of finaglers and easy targets, and a story of class warfare. There are unimaginable secrets hidden in the seemingly peaceful affluence of the rich folks’ home. The mood of Parasite begins as dismal and deliberate and builds to a fast-paced, mind-numbing finale.
The many viewers who have become fans of Parasite might want to explore other films by Bong Joon Ho. Snowpiercer, his first English-language film, received very good reviews and won thirty-three awards upon its release in 2013. It’s a sci-fi thriller about a failed climate-change experiment that turns the world into an ice age. The Snowpiercer is a train for human survivors that circles the frozen world, with the elite class living in comfort up front and the inferior classes huddled at the rear. A class-based revolution ensues, and the quirky cast including Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris, offers a lively, though sometimes illogical, ride.
The Host from 2006 is a more conventional sci-fi film. The story is straight forward. A sea monster, created from toxic waste and other living detritus, emerges from the Han River in Seoul. It looks like the Loch Ness monster, but more gruesome, more sticky, slithery, more menacing. Of course, a person is captured by this horrid creature. Sounds like dozens of other creature features, right? Wrong! Bon Joon Ho has such a fine sense of pacing and he chooses his shots with such competence, that even a viewer who has little interest in this genre can be highly entertained.
Other than Parasite, of the several Bong Joon Ho films that I have seen so far, Mother from 2009 is one that really grabs my attention. When a somewhat simple-minded teenaged boy is arrested for the murder of a schoolgirl, the young man’s bereft mother sets out to find the real killer. The screenplay is rich in detail, and, most of all, the performance of South Korean award-winning film and TV actress Hye-ja Kim in the title role, is impressive.
In both The Host and Mother, as in Parasite and Snowpiercer, Bong Joon Ho chooses to present stories that focus on the tensions between the social classes and between weak lower class people and the authorities who tower over them.
It’s only fitting that a talent like Bong Joon Ho should win every major film award, not just South Korean awards and not just genre-based accolades. Film has been an international artform since the turn of the twentieth century. To think that only U.S. productions or English-language films should win the Oscar for Best Picture is narrow-minded -- and finally obsolete!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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