By winning the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his highly ambitious and sophisticated film Parasite, filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has firmly cemented his place in world cinema. Indeed, the esteemed South Korean auteur is one of the most venerated directors of our time, his filmography a combination of arthouse and commercial endeavours that manage to break away from the usual cinematic genre conventions. Having had a formal film training and education at the Korean Academy of Film Arts, Bong possesses a deep understanding of cinema not only from a technical point-of-view but from a theoretical one as well.
Bong’s style is accentuated with an uncanny use of slapstick comedy and political commentary of the capitalist society, all the while subjecting his characters and, by extension his audiences into unexpected moral dilemmas. Hence not only do his films work on a macroscopic scale, they also challenge the viewers to introspect their ethical norms and beliefs.
For this list, I mainly assessed his movies based on the evolution of his style and voice as a filmmaker, and where he is most noticeably himself. Hence, you would find most of his South Korean films placed higher than those produced outside of his country even if they may not be on par with the latter’s production value, if only because they’re more attuned to Bong’s personality. More importantly, ranking his films is extremely difficult because four of his films could have easily taken the top spot; he’s just too good.
With that in mind, here are all of Bong’s films ranked in rough order of preference:
- Shaking Tokyo (2008, from Tokyo!)
Bong’s segment in his 2008 omnibus film with Michael Gondry and Leos Carax tackles an absurd level of isolationism in modern Tokyo, where the only way for people to socialize and interact with each other is through tragedy. It follows a man (Teruyuki Hagawa) who has been living as a hikikomori or a Tokyo shut-in for a decade, his only connection to the outside world is a landline telephone. His life breaks from the routine when he decides to look at the woman (Yu Aoi) who delivered him his pizza and inadvertently falls in love with her. This pushes a series of events that eventually leads him to go outside his house and witness a society where individualism has become the dominant culture and social interaction is perceived as a burden.
Shaking Tokyo is fascinating precisely because it is real, the hikikomori phenomenon permeating the lives of modern Tokyo residents. Bong inspects the loneliness in the metropolis and likens it to an epidemic that spreads among the people, that maybe the city itself is pushing its citizens into a life of recluse. Despite that, Shaking Tokyo stands out as being the most mediocre of Bong’s films, if only because the short run time cannot fully capture the magnitude of ideas that he explores. There is a feeling of bewilderment at being introduced to this absurd Japanese phenomenon that exists in real life, but it never goes beyond shock value. The film, overall, has a lingering sense that Bong could have done so much more.
- Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Bong’s first foray into feature-length filmmaking is a remarkably exhilarating exercise on genre filmmaking. His techniques and styles are much less refined compared to his newer works, but his playful direction nevertheless works wonders. The film essentially is an inspection of patriarchy by way of animal cruelty, a quest for redemption for its initially loathsome, jobless protagonist Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae). In usual Bong fashion, the story takes unexpected twists and turns and incorporates several subplots into its main narrative, an eccentric concoction that would not have worked had it not been for Bong’s confident guidance.
The film’s setting in a middle-class apartment complex provides it an intimate atmosphere, making the ensemble interactions more fun to watch. However, it’s apparent that Bong is still trying to figure out the intricacies of making a feature-length film, his screenplay a lot less tight than what he would later be known for. As a result, his tonal and genre shifts seem amateurish despite his firm vision. Thankfully, Cho Yong-kyu’s cinematography and Cho Sung-wo jazz score make up for the narrative shortcomings, the film’s audio-visual elements elevating its overall technical qualities.
- Influenza (2004)
Perhaps the most experimental in Bong’s entire filmography, Influenza uses only static shots taken from the perspective of CCTV cameras, rendering an additional layer of impenetrability, that the viewers are mere spectators and are helpless in changing the doomed fate of the working-class protagonist who spirals down into a life of criminality. This style also provides a panoptic feel to the film, as if to say that the government witnesses all these hardships and miseries but chooses to turn a blind eye on them. Despite these, Bong still manages to evoke empathy for the protagonist, his anonymity giving off an uncomfortable sense that there are many more like him around us.
However, the film’s stylistic choice also becomes its downfall. There’s so little to explore given the limitations set by Bong that the 30-minute runtime seems too long. I understand that the repetitive acts of violence intend to highlight the protagonist’s moral degradation, but it could still have been less dragging if the scenes were staged less lengthily. Still, this was the only time after his graduation at the Korean Academy of Film Arts that he made another “student-like” film so it was refreshing to see Bong free from the shackles of production studios.
- (tie) Snowpiercer (2013)
Adapted from the 1982 French novel Le Transperceneige, Bong’s first English-language film is a post-apocalyptic tale of the remnants of humanity aboard the titular perpetual-motion train. Snowpiercer deconstructs how the bourgeoisie manufacture social order and class division, and how social institutions like agriculture and education are manipulated by the rich for their own selfish gains. The portrayal of the revolution may be simplistic and problematic, but the film’s politics is already far more progressive than the usual Hollywood blockbuster.
The film’s strength lies primarily on its elaborate set pieces courtesy of Czech production designer Ondřej Nekvasil. Each train car was constructed with a keen attention to detail, closely collaborating with DOP Hong Gyeong-pyo to evoke a particular aura through color and lighting and accompany the simple goal of reaching the front-end section of the train with striking visuals. The film’s ensemble cast deliver strong performances, particularly Chris Evans as the protagonist with a dubious moral compass and Tilda Swinton as the convincingly irritating Dolores Umbridge-esque bourgeois henchwoman. Even Song Kang-ho, albeit given little material to showcase his acting prowess, shines as the enigmatic security expert Namgoong Minsoo who later proves to be quite useful to the narrative.
Still, Bong’s then-13-year experience of directing full-length features seem to not have been enough to prepare him for the prospect of filmmaking outside his South Korean comfort zone. He is challenged with bringing his ideas to a more universal environment, and maybe this is the reason why his characters felt more caricaturesque than normal. He struggles to bring his directorial trademarks to a foreign setting, making this feature less impressive than his usual works.
- (tie) Okja (2017)
In 2017, Bong finally decided to enter a film in the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival with Okja, a hyperactive and fast paced film about a young South Korean woman named Mija and her relationship with the titular genetically engineered “super pig.” The film, which was co-produced with Netflix, is a highly engaging critique on capitalism and the terrible conditions experienced by livestock animals in slaughterhouses. Made with a whopping $50 million budget, here we see Bong at his wildest, his creative juices let loose with the grandest production design and CGI we have seen from him so far.
Despite being his second English-language film, Okja feels more distinctly Bong, perhaps because half of the film was set in South Korea and because the protagonist and most of his crew members were South Korean. The cinematography, editing, and score particularly feel more in sync with Bong’s idiosyncratic energy, capable of strengthening the auteur’s ambitious vision. However, Mija’s characterization was rather bland and monotonous; she is easily the most morally upright of all of Bong’s protagonists, leaving no room for character development. It’s clear that Bong had fun playing with the magnitude of the film’s scale, yet at the same time, he seems unsure of what to make of it. Usually, the endings are some of the most unforgettable scenes in Bong’s films, but Okja’s can easily be shrugged off and doesn’t have any lasting impact. Though incredibly well-made, Okja lacks the level of mastery that Bong had already demonstrated in some of his earlier films.
- Incoherence (1994)
Bong’s thesis film from the Korean Academy of Film Arts is noticeably technically inferior than most of his films, but Incoherence, in my opinion, is the freest film he has ever made. The film follows a simple structure: three seemingly incoherent vignettes (“Cockroach,” “Up the Alleys,” and “The Night of Pain”) that tie up in a satirical epilogue, questioning the authority of our society’s supposed moral figures.
It’s remarkable how Bong can balance an entertaining atmosphere with serious political commentary this early in his directorial career, and how he manages to explore grand themes through minute human experiences. The humour is ever-present, heightening the hypocrisy of the supposedly respectable men who engage in varying degrees of immoral acts. More importantly, the film understands the limits of the short film form. Bong never tries to be overly ambitious with his direction. He settles with what he knows will work without compromising his vision. This level of restraint is something I would have expected from more experienced filmmakers, much less from a director as complicated as Bong, yet it only demonstrates his mastery of the cinematic medium and his mature directorial sensibilities, quite possibly the product of his formal film training and education.
- Mother (2009)
Arguably Bong’s least politically charged film, Mother instead focuses on a theme that is more personal and universal: maternal love. Featuring Kim Hye-ja as the unnamed titular matriarch (possibly the most morally grey character Bong ever created), the film explores the great lengths a mother would go to prove the innocence of her son in the face of a discriminating society.
Mother is a masterclass in misdirection. Granted, the plot is rather straightforward and not as complicated as his earlier film Memories of Murder, but Bong breaks conventions by staining the usual purist maternal love with crime and morally questionable character decisions. He plants clues early in the film and harvests them later for narrative cohesion, providing the “ah, so that’s what it was for!” factor of the film. Each crucial information is displayed in plain sight, yet it is only by peeling off the outer layers that they are truly unveiled to the viewers.
By the film’s end, it might feel like some of the narrative routes were useless and that it was too dependent on its big twist, but a closer inspection of the screenplay would reveal that its structure is actually not so much for the sake of plot progression but a slow unravelling of the mother’s demented psyche. As a result, the film ends up being a grand philosophical musing on the classic good vs evil problematique, and how the two are perhaps not entirely separate from each other.
- The Host (2006)
This film held the record for the highest-grossing Korean film of its time, and it’s not difficult to see why. Bong’s take on the monster sci-fi genre is an endlessly entertaining family adventure about Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a snack bar vendor whose daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung) is kidnapped by a mutated aquatic monster living in the Han River.
Though obviously a commercial endeavour, Bong never let go of his arthouse sensibilities; the film is not meant only to entertain but also to deliver a strong social commentary about the South Korean government. In particular, the film inspects the United States’ intervention in South Korean affairs, the latter’s encroachment in the political and military issues a dangerous threat to the peace in South Korea. This is further exemplified by the Agent Yellow used by government officials in the film as a desperate measure to kill the monster, which is based on the biochemical weapon Agent Orange used by the American military in the Vietnam War.
The Host features a strong ensemble performance from the nuclear Park family (Song, Go, Byun Hee-bong, Bae Doo-na, and Park Hae-il), their dynamics simultaneously silly and emotional. And though Bong, like in his other films, also navigates through various genres, he keeps the film’s sci-fi monster core intact: the fear of the unknown and the uncertainties that come with it, especially in a politically chaotic society.
- Memories of Murder (2003)
Widely considered as the film that catapulted Bong to international critical attention, Memories of Murder follows veteran detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and newbie detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) in their search for the culprit behind the first recorded serial killings in South Korean history. True to its crime procedural nature, the film sticks to the perspectives of the police officers trying to solve the rape-murder cases and not once did it try to give voice to families left behind by the victims. As a result, the film becomes a strong and highly original commentary on police operations and brutality, baring its fangs on the institution’s skewed motivations and systematic moral corruption. That there is an absence of even a quick mention of justice in the entire film is Bong trying to say that perhaps the peace and order that the police in the film (and maybe in real life as well) try to achieve is nothing but a farce.
The film was adapted from Kim Kwang-rim’s 1996 play of the same name, which might explain Bong’s extensive use of the ensemble staging device. As such, DOP Kim Kyung-hoo’s cinematography was a crucial part of the film, his lighting and composition bringing out Bong’s playful manipulation of the characters’ power relations. The editing and music cues also help in fully realizing the film’s mystery thriller aspects while also complementing Bong’s unique directorial approach.
But any write-up about Memories of Murder is not complete without mentioning its ingenious ending. Bong, through character Park Doo-man, breaks the fourth wall, giving a surprising meta narrative that ties to the film’s real-life inspiration. Bong uses the power of art as an instrument of remembering: the statute of limitations may have already expired and the case may remain unsolved forever, but through the film’s own artistic way, it “catches” the killer, forging an imagined path towards the elusive justice.
- Parasite (2019)
Parasite did not win the Palme d’Or for nothing. Here we witness Bong Joon-ho at the peak of his cinematic brilliance: themes of class division, social strata, resistance vs conformity, poor vs rich moralities are interconnected with such ease like it’s just a walk in the park for him. Bong no longer transitions into different genres; instead, he creates a genre of his own, an iconic fusion of comedy, suspense, and social commentary elements that can only be achieved by a proficient auteur such as him.
From a technical standpoint, the film is almost flawless. Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is unbelievably precise which, along with Lee Ha-jun’s effective production design, highlight Bong’s ingenious composition and use of the cinematic spaces to show power relations among the characters. Yang Jin-mo and Jung Jae-il create additional layers of wonder through editing and musical score, respectively, not giving the film even one dull moment. This is the type of movie that keeps the viewers at the edge of their seats and keeps them anticipating what would happen next while providing them with an intelligent brand of entertainment.
This film would also not have been successful had it not been for the committed performances of its ensemble of actors (who I won’t be mentioning one-by-one because there’s too many of them and they’re all equally good). There’s really no one definite protagonist in the film; they’re all meant to demonstrate how a socially unjust system works; hence each character is given their own moment to shine. This also allows Bong to be more manipulative of his characters, and in the hands of a less experienced director this approach would probably end up with caricatures of real-world persons. But just like the rock in the film, Bong recognizes that they’re not just metaphorical, they’re also real; he breathes enough quirk and personalities into them, resulting into holistic, well-rounded characters.
Parasite stands out as the most sophisticated film in Bong’s oeuvre of highly sophisticated works precisely because it is in this film that his directorial style has fully blossomed. He combined everything that has worked in all his previous films and ended up with a grand pastiche of societal and personal dilemmas, an unflinching cinematic statement that even in the contemporary era, humanity still faces troubles that it had been experiencing since its inception. Considering Bong’s seemingly infinite capacity for growth, some other future film might still surpass Parasite but for now, this film remains as his magnum opus.