Aged 40, Bong Joon-ho has made two of the highest-grossing movies in the history of his country’s domestic box office. The enshrined star of South Korea’s burgeoning 21st-century film industry, he appears to take his role as standard-bearing popular artist seriously. His latest film, Mother, opens Stateside in March—BAM offers a preview screening and, for the occasion, a review of the decade that made him.
After a typical film-buff/film-school/short-film incubation, Bong’s first feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite, quietly came and went in 2000. It’s an eager debut, with inventive fillips in every scene. A meek grad student (Lee Sung-jae) stews in his hive-like apartment complex, waiting for a professorship. Impotent before his pregnant wife and academic politics, and bedeviled by the yapping of neighbors’ dogs, he begins silencing his most helpless nemeses—the resulting Missing Pet flyers, exemplars of message-in-a-bottle hope and lonesomeness, puts Bae Du-na’s lost-soul/would-be heroine onto his trail.
The inspiration for Bong’s ambitious policier, Memories of Murder (2003), was a still-unsolved series of rape-murders in Gyeonggi Province, which began, like the film, in 1986. The killings fall under the jurisdiction of an unequipped backwater department and a lunkish detective, Park (Song Kang-ho), whose time-tested method is beating an excess of confessions out of whoever lands in his custody. Unprecedented atrocity requires somewhat more nuanced treatment, so Inspector Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) comes in from Seoul. It’s potboiler odd-partners stuff, elevated by a sense for ingrown rural lives and the unthinking acceptance of “the way things are done.” The public that had perhaps been turned off by cruelty to animals was less squeamish about human sacrifice; Memories sold 5 million tickets in a country of 50 million.
With The Host (2006), his megaproduction creature-feature, Bong’s ambition swelled to the size of a galumphing mutant amphibian splurting out of Seoul’s Han River in broad daylight to gorge on onlookers. The most impressive scenes show off the filmmaker’s new clout: He and his monster have their run of the riverbanks. A landmark blockbuster for the Korean industry, The Host actually isn’t miles removed from mid-’90s Dollar Theater CGI monster movies (e.g., The Relic, Mimic). Yet, even before shooting had wrapped, a New York Times profile anointed the filmmaker with this headline howler: “Unlike His Peers, the Director Bong Joon-ho Likes Ideas and Metaphors”—as if every other Hollywood sci-fi/horror didn’t come with big-issue tie-ins.
In The Host, official channels are once again helpless in the face of catastrophe. The reaction by Korean-U.S. task forces is a muddle of quarantines, haphazard disinfections, and disinformation—it falls on one dysfunctional family to save the day. A prologue has the mutating pollution originating from an American military base; surgical masks suggest SARS hysteria. Bong is dialing up his audience’s collective memories of Korean history, as he did in Memories, by offhandedly recalling the defense drills and nonexistent civil rights of the ’80s under Chun Doo-hwan’s military government.
Aside from “Ideas and Metaphors,” the signature attribute of Bong’s three movies is a tendency to balance a scene between tragedy and farce, as when Park arrives at Memories‘ first crime scene to the traveling-shot chaos of underfoot kids and evidence-eroding tractors, or in the breast-beating mass wake of The Host (which later reprises Memories‘ best gag: pratfalling officials). Twiddling comedy and tragedy isn’t unheard of—currently, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), if less relevant, is a hell of a lot funnier. But there is the sense—and this is rare enough—that Bong Joon-ho hasn’t done his best work yet.