Perhaps no working filmmaker has a more complicated relationship to America and its cinema than Bong Joon-ho. Decades before the writer-director began breaking box office records in Korea, then sweeping the Korean equivalent of the Oscars, then crushing the American box office, then preparing to compete in the actual Oscars, Bong was a little boy in South Korea watching Hollywood movies on the American Forces Network. Glued to the English-language channel for U.S. service members stationed in Korea, Bong devoured films from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Sidney Lumet, and John Frankenheimer, noticing even then the studio filmmakers who managed to achieve an authorial style. It would be years before he arrived in Hollywood, but he was already what Koreans call a “Hollywood kid.”
Bong’s passion for American film has long been tangled up in his complex feelings about the role of the American military in his home country. In America, the Korean War is often referred to as the “Forgotten War,” but in Korea, its effects linger. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Bong was growing up, the U.S. service members who were ostensibly there to help prop up the forces of freedom bolstered a series of military dictatorships instead. In college, he majored in sociology, but his interests veered more toward two other subjects: the pro-democracy protests that were then gripping Korea and his first love, the movies.
His debut feature, 2000’s Barking Dogs Never Bite, wasn’t very good. “Please forget it,” he told me recently, when I met up with him earlier this month for an interview looking back on his career up through his latest, Parasite. “It’s a very stupid movie.” His sophomore film, 2003’s Memories of Murder, a Zodiac-esque study of the failed search for Korea’s first serial killer and the psychic toll it takes on its detectives, catapulted him to the apex of Korean cinema, winning him best picture and best director at the country’s top cinema honors, the Grand Bell Awards.
As successful as Memories of Murder was, it was Bong’s third film that launched him into the stratosphere. 2006’s The Host was a blockbuster in every sense of the word. It was a monster movie, part Jaws and part Godzilla, about an amphibious creature terrorizing Seoul, rendered in cutting-edge visual effects. By the end of that year, it had become the highest-grossing South Korean film in the country’s history and an international phenomenon. In 2009, Quentin Tarantino named it one of his favorite movies of the past two decades, and he later cited Memories of Murder and The Host to compare Bong’s work during this period to Steven Spielberg’s storied run in the 1970s.
But as much as The Host was influenced by American movies like Jaws, the daddy shark that begat the whole blockbuster category, it also turned the tools of American blockbuster filmmaking as weapons back against itself—and the country that launched them. The Host’s monster was inspired by an actual incident in 2000, in which the U.S. military ordered toxic chemicals to be dumped into a waterway that led to Seoul’s Han River. But the mutant creature is, in some ways, a red herring. As the movie goes on, it becomes clear that Bong is more interested in exploring what it’s like to live in the shadow of the American military-industrial complex. The Korean state, working with American forces, uses the creature to stoke fears about a virus, a weapon of mass destruction that’s supposedly spread by the creature but, the movie later reveals, does not really exist. Instead, the supposed disease is little more than an excuse for these joint military forces to take further control. By the end of the movie, the allied governments try to defeat the creature using an experimental chemical weapon, but they end up mostly harming a group of young Korean protesters. The weapon is called Agent Yellow.
The Host was quickly recognized in Korea as one of the first films to protest America’s military presence in the country so openly. (It also plays like a thinly veiled critique of America’s failed search for WMD in Iraq.) “It was natural for me to satirize American society using the style of an American film,” Bong recalled about the film. “I never thought there was a contradiction there.”
This set the template for much of the rest of his career, all the way up through his richly allegorical, deeply subversive, and yet somehow breezily entertaining latest, Parasite. After following The Host with 2009’s Mother, a genre-bending noir about a Korean widow who will stop at nothing to exonerate her son, Bong made his next two films with American actors and American money and used them to critique, among other targets, America itself. Like The Host, 2013’s Snowpiercer begins with an environmental disaster. A bungled attempt at fighting global warming via geoengineering sends the planet into a new ice age, with what’s left of humanity confined to one Noah’s Ark–like train. But as with The Host, the thriller’s primary subject isn’t, ultimately, the environment. Instead, it’s the grotesquerie of global inequality, as the proles crowded into the sweatshoplike rear cars force their way to the sumptuous front in a violent uprising, discovering in the process just how many cars are dedicated to luxuries like saunas and sushi. Hollywood becomes a target as well: This would-be revolution, the autocratic tycoon Wilford (Ed Harris) suggests late in the film, was part of his plan all along, a way of maintaining the status quo via a distracting “blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot”—the blockbuster as opium for the masses.
If The Host was Bong’s twisty, twisted take on Jaws, his follow-up was a twisty, twisted take on E.T. (With, lest we Americans give ourselves too much credit, a spritz of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator of similarly environmentalist, girl-centric fairy tales.) Like Spielberg’s science fiction adventure, 2017’s Okja follows a wide-eyed child who befriends a mysterious, adorable, potbellied being and then must rescue it from the powerful institutions that hope to capture and study it. Unlike in E.T., the title creature is a genetically modified “super pig” and the institution a Manhattan-based corporation that bred her to market its new line of meat. (Because of its dark climax, set in a slaughterhouse and deliberately invoking Holocaust imagery, Bong told me he found it difficult to secure funding from major Hollywood studios, which is how the film ended up being produced by deep-pocketed Netflix.) The result is a movie that at first appears cuddly but soon reveals its teeth. It lures audiences in with the promise of a heartwarming adventure and then forces them to confront the truth about how their sausage gets made (Bong’s research turned him temporarily vegan), as well as the ways in which decisions made in American skyscrapers can impact people (and creatures) all over the world.
For his latest, Bong returned to Seoul, making his first movie in a decade set entirely in Korea with an all-Korean cast. Centered on two families—one scheming and poor, the other obscenely rich—Parasite chronicles a class war in miniature, as the impoverished Kims grift their way into the most intimate crevices of a mansion inhabited by the much wealthier Parks. Predictably, it’s already become a massive hit in his home country, but, paradoxically, Parasite is also becoming his greatest international success. At this spring’s Cannes Film Festival, it won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, making Bong the first Korean director ever to win the honor. During its American opening weekend this October, it made more money per theater than any foreign-language movie in U.S. history. Now, Oscar forecasters expect Parasite to compete not only for this country’s Academy Award for best international feature film but for best picture. Those American movies he grew up on “remain in my body more than in my brain,” Bong told me. America burrowed into him. Why do we love so much how he gets under our skin?
“People tell me I’m strange,” he said at the top of a conversation that alternated between English and Korean. But in an elegantly sterile Manhattan hotel room, dressed in the international uniform of the male director—jeans, black T-shirt, black blazer—he fit right in. He appeared at least a decade younger than his 50 years, and when I asked him whether his fluffy mop of hair was the result of a perm (a common procedure among fashionable men in Korea), he said between chuckles that he got this question a lot back home and that any hair salon that made a paying customer look like him deserved to be shut down. With his genial manner, tousled locks, and boyish features behind boxy half-rim glasses, he didn’t seem like some master of cinema, the man who could save the blockbuster from itself.
The American blockbuster is a chameleonic art form, able to take on a multitude of tones, themes, conflicts, and points of view. There was little that unified that first wave of Jaws, Star Wars, Alien, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, beyond summer release dates and the efficiency with which each movie delivered its thrills. But in the past decade, this species of film has gotten an injection of superserum that has allowed it to replicate itself quickly at the expense of originality. Bong’s ardor for the blockbuster is unmistakable, and he’s been displaying his affection by restoring its sense of variety and unpredictability. In his hands, the blockbuster is something uncanny, as familiar as it is foreign.
I first encountered Bong’s work at UCLA, where I was a grad student, at the cusp of The Host’s American release. Between the university’s famed film school and its large Korean American population, I’d never seen the campus’s main movie theater so packed or feverish. The Host—one of the four of Bong’s films that could easily be called a “masterpiece”—soon justified the anticipation. (For those creating their viewing lists, the others are Memories of Murder, Mother, and Parasite.) Early in the film, doofus dad Gang-du grabs his middle school–age daughter’s hand as the pair flee from the approaching sea creature. In his panic, Gang-du runs a little too fast, and his grip on his daughter’s hand slips. He reaches for it again and keeps running, only to turn around a few beats later and discover that he’s holding onto someone else’s daughter. His horror is our comedy. The error is both wholly understandable and blood-boilingly unforgivable. Funny and nauseating and terrifying and deeply relatable, it’s a classic Bong scene: one that makes you feel several seemingly irreconcilable feelings at once.
At other times, Bong opts for whiplash between emotions rather than an onslaught of them. The Host’s most memorable, and in many ways most virtuosic, moment takes place soon after the park scene, which ends with Gang-du watching his daughter captured by the monster. Convinced that his daughter is dead, Gang-du, his elderly father, and his two adult siblings mourn the preteen’s death in an auditorium full of grievers who’ve all had their lives turned inside out by the monster, giving viewers an obvious cue to cry along. Then Bong, who delights in getting audiences to laugh during situations that we’d assume to be incompatible with humor, cuts to a wide, overhead shot showing all four adults wailing histrionically on the floor, their bodies twisting like bugs suddenly exposed to the light. The lurch from tears to laughter that Bong engineers is shocking.
These hairpin turns in tone are just one of the maneuvers Bong uses to achieve his signature feat, which is to make his movies weave wildly and excitingly between genres. Parasite, for instance, wiggles through so many different modes—heist film, comedy, horror, tragedy—that it’s ultimately perverse to categorize. In her review, Slate film critic Dana Stevens ascribed to Bong’s artful slippage through genre boundaries “an organic quality, as if his films were grown rather than made.” Watching a Spielberg movie, you pretty much always know how it’s going to end. Watching a Bong movie, it’s often hard to know where it’s going to be in five minutes.
Bong’s protagonists, too, don’t fit the usual blockbuster mold. There’s more diversity in the protagonists of his first seven movies than in the heroes of Marvel’s first 17, but that’s not to say they don’t have unifying traits. If the ur-hero of the American blockbuster is the “common man”—generally a working- or upper-middle-class white man—Bong sees the genre as an opportunity to uplift the kind of character who’s more likely to be cast stateside as the dopey sidekick. In several of his films, Bong’s doltish protagonists have been played by Song Kang-ho, the astonishingly versatile actor who has served as the director’s muse since their first collaboration nearly 20 years ago in Memories of Murder. (Asked what’s changed in their years of working together, Song’s answer is “Bong’s belly.”) In Memories, The Host, and Parasite, Song plays a paternal buffoon—initially not too far off from a Korean Homer Simpson—who gradually reveals the depths of his innate dignity. “Life is hard in Korea, or in any country,” Bong expounds. So in a certain sense, the average person is a “loser.” In fact, “the world is so hard, it’s strange not to be a loser.” One notable exception is Snowpiercer, where Chris Evans’ hunky rebel leader seems to fit the Hollywood type perfectly—until a third-act reveal subverts the trope by unmasking Captain America as a cannibal.
Visually capturing that sense of the blearily ordinary can provide casting challenges, particularly in a country infamous for its high rate of plastic surgery among both men and women. Actress Bae Doona has claimed that the reason she got her career-making start in Barking Dogs Never Bite was her willingness to go in front of the camera sans makeup. (Bong told me what actually clinched the casting was her seeming disinterest at her audition, her mien of a “cat dozing in the sun.”) For the kinds of characters he’s interested in, Bong said he generally eschews “artificial, celebrity-looking” faces, opting instead for features that make their owner look like “they’re just in an alley, about to trip over a rock.”
The most obvious theme in Bong’s filmography is income inequality. Bong’s gift lies not just in his ability to construct Trojan horse films, movies that present themselves as commercial popcorn flicks while sneakily condemning capitalism itself, but in his skill for cutting deep enough to reveal strange new layers of vulnerability and exploitation. For Bong, the division between the haves and the have-nots is never the whole picture: He’s interested in the gradations of privilege within those clear-cut strata. “Parasite has a semi-basement, and a basement beneath that,” Bong explains. “There is the poor, and the even poorer.” He sums up several of his films when he adds, “It’s a story about the powerless fighting each other, and that is the saddest thing.”
The inequities that interest Bong don’t just play out along class lines. They crisscross (or, to use a more contemporary term, intersect) with systemic issues around gender, disability, globalization, and more. Even Barking Dogs Never Bite hinges on a revelation of workplace pregnancy discrimination. In Parasite and Okja, wealthy women benefit from their position but also struggle with its precariousness, desperately bolstering their status through dutiful performances of feminine cheer. Bong’s careful attention to the relativity of privilege also explains the frequency of characters with intellectual disabilities, who are often taken advantage of by the other have-nots.
Unlike many of the filmmakers who inspired him, Bong seems fully comfortable writing female protagonists, though he says that the gender distribution of his characters isn’t the result of a conscious decision. With the girl hero in Okja, he wanted to create a female character defined by her “unstoppability.” But he never settles for the too-neat empowerment narratives used to sell wonder women. Mother, perhaps Bong’s most dramatically mature work, dares to question an institution no less sacred than the family, showing how a parent’s unconditional love can lead her to carry out misdeeds she otherwise could have never imagined.
In this way, Bong is motivated less by box-checking and Bechdel tests to increase positive on-screen representation—a game that even corporations like Disney have gotten into to sell tickets—than by the pursuit of moral and emotional complexity. When I ask him about the fact that he’s never rewarded a male hero with a female trophy, for example, Bong says he hasn’t deliberately eschewed what he calls the “mission accomplished kiss.” (Indeed, perhaps the one major genre Bong has never made is the love story, though he reassures me he is “very interested in romance” and “will make them in the future.”) Instead, in his movies, “there are no heroes.”
Parasite launches with a whole series of scams, but the two clans are initially connected when the poor son passes himself as a college-educated English tutor to obtain a job teaching the rich daughter. Thus, the film’s original complaint—though it soon gets to many, many others—is about the way globalization compels everyone who wants to compete in the international marketplace to learn English.
As a filmmaker making movies in that marketplace, Bong seems to feel that pressure personally, and he has responded by turning that power imbalance on its head—by peppering his movies with gags that can’t travel beyond Korean borders alongside the many jokes that do. Even the two largely English-language movies he’s made contain in-jokes that could only be enjoyed by those who speak Korean. In Okja, a line of Korean dialogue that the subtitles translate as “Try learning English. It opens new doors!” actually means something completely different that could never be rendered in English. And in Snowpiercer, Song’s cranky security expert Namgoong Minsu, upon being reluctantly conscripted into the insurgent forces of Chris Evans’ strapping leader, unleashes a torrent of grunts and growls to which the rebels’ automated translator responds only, “Unknown words found. Please try again with correct vocabulary.” Korean audiences will understand (and possibly relate to) what Namgoong has actually said: He corrects the way the American leader keeps calling him “Nam,” telling him, “Nam-goong is my last name! Min-soo is my first name. Got that, you ignorant bastard?”
Bong resisted the idea that he planned his latest as a homecoming after his two semi-American projects, telling me “Parasite was conceived and greenlit by 2013.” In our conversation, he ping-ponged often between the auteur who had to satisfy himself first and the showman who had to attract enough moviegoers to continue to turn a profit on budgets in the tens of millions. Ultimately, he claimed he is too concerned with the intricate plotting and meticulous staging of his movies to strategize about how to communicate across cultures.
Bong similarly retreated when I asked him why Parasite has become such a sensation in America. So let me try. Yes, it’s foremost a superb film—not a blockbuster, per se, but the rare film that’s both an unabashed crowd-pleaser and a thematically dense art film. In many ways a culmination of Bong’s work thus far, it pieces together many of his favorite elements: lovable but self-deluded characters, nail-biting action sequences, unexpectedly earthy humor (even Bong’s artiest films have poop jokes), and a keen sense of moral outrage mixed with open-armed empathy for the less-than-upright. Despite the seriousness of Bong’s films, his magic trick lies in continuing to pull fun out of even the direst of circumstances.
But dozens of great films pass through art house theaters every year with nary a peep, and Parasite has one more trick up its sleeve. It seems to rake across so many raw nerves on this side of the Pacific because it arrives at a time when our own notions of Americanness—that ineffable sense of satiety and opportunity that so many hunger for all over the world—has never felt so diffuse, disputed, or unattainable. No one knows better than Americans just how hollow our country’s promises can be. Blockbusters made everyone feel like an American—that version of Americanness we all wish were true—for at least a couple of hours. Bong’s latest act is reconstructing that whole dream before our eyes, as vividly as we’ve ever seen it before, and then, in one last twist, making it vanish.