Hey Funkhouser fans, it’s me, the guy who wrote that “Stranger Things” story you probably hated. (Though I wouldn’t really know. I don’t read the comments, because I’m a coward. Chris just told me they were rough.) So anyway, I’ve returned from a school/internship related exile to talk about someone special. A person of eccentric genius and virtue. A frumpy, sweet man who’s been bringing us some of the most sharply written and buckfucking wild motion pictures to be released in the last 20ish years. I’m talking of course about this guy.
South Korea’s Bong Joon Ho has been making films since the 90’s. He’s got a staggering list of films under his belt from a wide swath of genres. Dark comedies, crime dramas, action, adventure, horror. You name it, Bong can make it, and do a damn sight better job than just about everyone else in the film industry. You probably heard of him for the first time a couple weeks ago when he made history in an unprecedented sweep of the Oscars for the brilliant “Parasite”. The ever-twisting tragicomedy about the intertwined existence between an upper and lower class family in South Korea was the first foreign film to win Best Picture at the Oscars (along with several other awards including Best Director for Bong himself). It’s a hilarious, heart-breaking ride from start to finish and a furiously righteous meditation on class inequality. “Parasite” is awesome, please watch it. But Bong’s got a whole lot more to offer.
“Snowpiercer” was the first of his films that I ever saw, and it made my jaw drop. Based on a French comic book, it’s a dystopian action flick set in a world ravaged by climate change. The fractured remains of the human race reside on a giant bullet train in a constant state of motion. The wealthy live in opulence in the front of the train and rule with an iron fist, while the poor live in destitute cars in the back. The social commentary here is blatant, but nonetheless effective when the plot boils into literal class warfare. When Chris Evans picks up an axe and leads a rebellion, shit gets real. The tagline of the film is a simple one, “Fight Your Way to the Front”, it says. There’s never been a more fitting tagline. The action is insanely over the top and brutal. The cinematography is gorgeous. The acting, with supporting performances from people like Tilda Swinton (she has to be seen to believed) John Hurt, and Octavia Spencer are incredible. The social commentary is scathing. And for those of you who have trouble with subtitles, like 99% of it’s in English!
“The Host” is the bastard lovechild of “Godzilla” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”. It features a working class South Korean family of lovable and dysfunctional oddballs on a desperate mission to rescue one of their own after a giant catfish monster goes on the attack. Yes, this is a monster movie in the grand old tradition of “Godzilla” or “King Kong”. And it’s a damn good one at that. When the creature first attacks, it’s in broad daylight and it’s horrifying. You see the big, slimy bastard in all it’s glory from the get go, there are no shadows or editing tricks to hide him. The monster itself is disgusting and particularly wrathful, even after you’ve been watching it for over an hour, it’s appearances are still absolutely nerve wracking. But saying that “The Host” is only a monster movie is a bit of a disservice. There’s a whole lot to unpack in it thematically, from an analysis of U.S. interventionism in Korea and environmentalism to a thinly veiled critique of the Iraq War. Like the commentary in some of Bong’s other films, it can all be pretty blatant. Making it all the more surprising that this movie is also laugh out loud funny. There’s a line of dialogue where a father claims he can sense his 35ish son’s mood by the smell and sound of his farts. Characters will make pratfall’s that would make Moe Howard gleam with joy. And in one of the most darkly comic scenes in film history, Bong shows us a scene of a family rolling on the ground weeping in despair and makes it absolutely hilarious.
While “The Host” and “Snowpiercer” are probably my favorite Bong Joon Ho films (thus getting bigger write-ups from me), don’t let that discourage you from checking out some of his other films. “Okja” sees a young girl go on a rescue mission to save her best friend, a giant, adorable, pig/hippo monster from the clutches of an evil corporation. “Memories of Murder” is another one worth watching, based on a true story, it follows two comically simple-minded detectives on the hunt for one of South Korea’s first serial killers.
Bong Joon Ho is a master of all genres. Who else can hop so easily between them? Going from a true crime story to a rampaging mutant catfish to Captain America kicking ass on a future train to a girl and her adorable giant pig to a resourceful poor family bamboozling an oblivious rich family is quite a testament to the man’s skill. Bong is one of the only people alive who can take these ludicrous concepts and put them through such a thoughtful and entertaining lens. More so than anything else, and most importantly, he takes a jackhammer to the barrier between art films and blockbusters. The stories he tells are complex and offer passionate takes on everything from class struggles to environmentalism. But they’re always accessible, and they’re always entertaining. So if you’re willing to read some subtitles and make the jump outside of typical American genre-fare, give this magnificent bastard a shot. You might just find yourself diving headfirst into the wonderful world of South Korean cinema. For further viewing on that front, watch anything from Park Chan-wook or Kim Jee-woon. And if you want South Korea’s best entry into that “ex secret agent or assassin comes out of retirement to wreak havoc” genre I love so much, look no further than “The Man from Nowhere”.