Tom Jolliffe looks at Bong Joon-Ho’s work this century. Is there anyone better?
There are some exceptional directors in cinema right now. Some fresh talent burning bright, just etching the beginnings of their (hopefully consistent) legacies. I’m massively into Robert Eggers right now, and the Safdie Brothers. Steve McQueen continues producing powerful work across several mediums. Martin Scorsese is still creatively vibrant and hitting those high notes consistently. Other directors are exceptional at best, but with carte blanche at their disposal can occasionally be undone by indulgence (Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson). But…is anyone quite as damn good as Bong Joon Ho right now?
Like many of us, Parasite really kicked off a big interest in his work for me. To that point I’d seen the US crossover films Okja and Snowpiercer. They’re both quality films. The former distinctly allegorical, quirky and loaded with imagination (and heavy doses of charm). It’s still one of the best Netflix productions. It struck me as the mark of a filmmaker very assured in what he was doing, without necessarily making me think he was perhaps top tier. Like many directors of world cinema, when the US production houses get involved, it’s not always the most creatively open space, but I sense Bong was given largely free reign there. As for Snowpiercer, it remains one of the most sadly overlooked films of the last decade (Bong had much publicised spats with Harvey Weinstein, who spitefully contributed to its poor releasing). A metaphorical deconstruction of class divides set in a dystopian future. Like all good big brother films about social structure and that divide between rich and poor, an uprising is inevitable. The confined setting of a train never hinders the film either, in a tale that balances dark themes, macabre humour, drama and prescience. It’s brilliant. It slowly captured a cult audience, spawned a TV reboot (that is solid, if decidedly not up to par with Bong’s film).
Parasite of course was a revelation. For many, an eye-opener to his talents. To a lucky select (outside of Korea at least), it was just a continuation of a master doing what he does best. When it comes to films that stick with me, that strike me as completely masterful, I’m very much firmly lodged in 20th century work. It’s not to say standards have dropped this century. Maybe tastes have, with an even heavier leaning toward easy escapism. Likewise, we’re only recently coming out of a seeming aversion to greenlight more intellectually engaging material (seen with the rise of A24 films for one). Filmmakers are increasingly (though still not enough) being given the opportunity to create films that will hook their claws into you 2-3 viewings in. Rather than a norm which is instant gratification followed by increasingly less impact (if I’m brutally honest, a lot of Marvel falls into that camp). Some films are entertaining enough but almost a hazy memory by the time you’ve got back to the cinema carpark. Something like The Lighthouse as an example isn’t an easy one to get into off the bat, but offers much repeat value thanks to its inherent uniqueness. Parasite hits big from the off and it gets better with every viewing. It now joins a very small selection of works I could quite comfortably include in a Top 100 list. Time is a key factor, and sometimes we need time to factor longevity, but with Parasite, as I did with There Will Be Blood, or No Country For Old Men, gives me a distinct assurance that it has timelessness in its veins.
It’s an exceptional work and an example of a film-maker breathing life into a film, and knowing the machinations of his work down to its core DNA. Every fibre of Parasite connects together and makes overall sense (you could say the opposite of something like Tenet say, that Nolan knows inside out but doesn’t translate entirely to all and sundry). The film beautifully weaves together a number of set ups and payoffs. The structure is so tight and in terms of its visual language (from how Bong has the film shot and edited) it’s impeccable and geniusly elaborate (YouTube has a number of great dissections theorising how Bong put this together). The thing is, you can be that clever, the trick is to have the skill to make it unnoticeable to those who aren’t intensely looking for it. Bong has that modesty in his film-making. He has absolutely refined control in what he does. Nothing isn’t meticulous, but these choices shouldn’t be pushy and shouldn’t intrude on the audience. As far as mixing genres too, Bong is a master, but this was a wonderful cocktail of genres that never felt off balance.
After Parasite came that desire for me to look back retrospectively. It’s so good, is this the top of the mountain, at an altitude way up on its own in Bong’s CV? It probably is the best, but a couple of others particularly, have pushed it close. Mother, a brilliantly crafted detective story, follows the mother of a mentally challenged young man accused of murder. Their relationship is close, mutually reliant on the other (for the son, functionally, the mother emotionally). He’s something of a figure of fun to some in the neighbourhood. The mother dotes on him and babies him somewhat, but finds purpose from doing so. That drawn out search for the truth, her firm belief that he couldn’t be capable of taking a life, is gripping, and sometimes harrowing. The performance from Kim Hye-Ja is also magnificent. Had Mother captured the same kind of interest Parasite did, it certainly would have been worthy of any Oscar attention, and Hye-Ja likewise.
What might be even better, and a film still fresh in mind for me, is Memories of Murder. This one was the first to really break Bong into world consciousness. It’s as fine a procedural crime thriller as you’ll see from this century, somewhat reminiscent of something like Zodiac if you’ve seen the latter but not the former. Two detectives who flit between bumbling and immoral in their search to find a serial killer (who targets women dressed in red, on rainy Korean nights) are joined by a detective from Seoul who works more logically (but gets increasingly invested emotionally into the case, almost to breaking point). It’s a film that captures the fruitlessness of cases with a scarcity of solid evidence. The chase often seems hopeless, and the methods hopeful (over methodical and practical). It’s personified in the fact key DNA evidence needs to be sent to America for testing as Korea doesn’t (or didn’t during the films late 80’s setting) have the capabilities. Without giving too much away on any of these, Bong has a penchant for non-committal, slightly open endings (leaning toward pessimism). He knows how to end a film and have it stick. He knows how to make you walk out of a theatre in near stunned silence, but being enamoured with the cinematic skill at the same time. I’ll be interested to see my thoughts on this film in five years, in comparison to Parasite. They’re his two strongest pieces in an near faultless CV (The Host is also a great, a really unique creature feature with Bong’s signature individuality), and Memories of Murder is one of the finest detective stories in recent cinema history.
Like almost everyone who saw Parasite, my anticipation for what comes next is high. Can Bong maintain that level and continue to litter his CV with great movies? Can he continue to keep a seat at the high table of exceptional directors and cement his legacy in the all time hall of fame? He’s certainly heading that way, and right now, he’s a film-maker whose next film probably fills me with more excitement than anyone else. What are your thoughts on Bong Joon Ho? Who is your favourite director working right now? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.