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When we look back at the year in cinema that was 2020, Bong Joon Ho dominating the Oscars with his film Parasite is always going to be one of the highlights. It was a major upset based on a groundswell of populist support, and it made history as the first foreign film to win Best Picture. Now, with cinemas closed and the summer movie season pushed back to later this year and beyond, Parasite may be the only thing we recall from the movies in recent memory.
In other words, it’s the perfect time to catch up on the South Korean director’s filmography. The filmmaker was already an international star before Parasite, with nearly two decades of thrilling work to demonstrate his prowess. The AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center had planned a Bong Hive retrospective, named for his vociferous online fans, in March. Lucky for us that (almost) all of his films are available to stream, including most of the ones that were set to be shown at the retrospective.
Barking Dogs Never BiteEasily the most delightful film ever made about dog-killing, Bong’s 2000 debut is notable for just how fully-formed the auteur arrived on the scene. Barking Dogs Never Bite, the story of a homebound academic who wages war with the dogs in his apartment building features Bong’s trademark genre-hopping—it’s a satire with heart—and his acute political consciousness. The protagonist hates dogs because he wants peace and quiet, but they also become a symbol of an increasingly Westernized society. At one point, he says the dogs eat better than he does. Bong sees something deeply askew in a culture that values its pets over its workers.
Later, in Snowpiercer and Parasite, Bong would perfect the notion of a physical structure serving as a microcosm for class society, but you can see it here already in the drab and byzantine apartment building where the film is set. Pay attention to the events that occur on the top floor, the endless chases through its middle levels, and finally the dark secrets buried in its basement. It wouldn’t be long before Bong was recognized as a master of class metaphor, but Barking Dogs Never Bites proves his genius was there all along. Available to stream on Amazon and other video on demand services.
The HostThis 2006 monster movie is the closet Bong ever got to directly aping the Hollywood directors that he counts as influences. In his tale of a giant mutant fish that emerges from the Han River to terrorize the people of Seoul, Bong riffs on the blockbusters like Independence Day and War of the Worlds, expertly balancing CGI spectacle and action set pieces with earnest family drama. Bong regular Song Kang-ho returns to give another masterful central performance as a lackluster dad who springs to action when his daughter is abducted by the river beast. Uncertain of her fate, he enlists his father and two semi-estranged siblings to track her down and save her.
Here, the poisonous influence of American imperialism is what drives the story. Early on, we learn that the mutation was caused by gallons of toxic chemicals being dumped into the Han by a careless American military official. Using his political comment as the premise that underpins the entire movie, Bong is free to thrill his audience to pieces, safe in the knowledge that his message is getting through. Watching Bong hone his consistent argument in new genres, and with larger budgets, is what makes following his career such a rewarding experience. Available to stream on Amazon and other video on demand services.
MotherOne of Bong’s least political films might also be his most heartfelt. His 2009 mystery Mother is a fable about the lengths a mother will go to protect her child, but Bong’s clever screenplay and its heroic lead performance elevate a well-worn premise into a mesmerizing film.
The plot details feel so similar to his masterpiece 2003 crime thriller Memories of Murder that it’s easy to imagine Bong writing the two screenplays based on the same case. Again, there is the murder of a young woman, a mentally disabled suspect, and a person who will stop at nothing to find the real killer. Changing the protagonist from a grizzled cop to a determined parent, however, allows for a more emotional experience. Hye-Ja Kim is a middle-aged mother to a grown son with a mental disability charged with the murder of a local girl. She’s convinced of his innocence, but motivated only by her maternal bond. Determined to dig deeper than her town’s lazy police force, she seeks to solve the murder herself.
The story plays to Bong’s strengths as he weaves in thriller and horror elements. There are turns you won’t see coming, but for the first time in his filmography (and arguably the last), the plot twists are secondary to the human element. As the character known only as Mother, Hye-Ja Kim is magnetic, holding all the complexities of motherhood in her performance. She can move from steely to vulnerable within the same shot, and her courageous performance makes Mother both an effective genre exercise and one of Bong’s best films. Available to stream on Amazon and other video on demand services.
SnowpiercerWith Snowpiercer, an adaptation of a French graphic novel, Bong finally hit on the perfect vehicle for his kaleidoscopic style. It’s a dystopian sci-fi story set in a new ice age. Almost all life has been extinguished, except for a few hundred people who live on a train that continuously traverses Earth without stopping. A select few live a luxurious lifestyle in the front cars, while dozens of laborers are packed into the tail end. The delicate balance doesn’t last. The workers—led by a grizzled Chris Evans in the first sign of his darker, post-Captain America career—launch a violent rebellion, working their way to the front of the train, and encountering a new challenge in every compartment.
In other films, Bong’s inclination to veer in and out of genres creates whiplash and detracts from the emotional impact of the story, but Snowpiercer leans into this tendency, and the results are thrilling. Every train car offers its own lush production design, inventive narrative twist, and, as they inch closer to the car that controls the train, threat of violent conflict. The stacked cast includes John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Jamie Bell, and while the actors each get their moments, it’s the giddy thrill of wondering what Bong will do next that drives the magnificent film forward. Available to stream on Netflix, Amazon, and other video on demand services.
OkjaOkja is the story of a girl and her superpig, a genetically modified animal created by the evil Mirando corporation as a cure for world hunger. The only problem is that Okja, in a long-game corporate promotion, has spent her first 10 years in the Korean countryside as a friend and companion to young Mija (Seo Hyun), who lives there with her grandfather. When Mirando comes to collect, Mija embarks on a globe-spanning adventure with a hilariously polite group of animal rights activists, fighting an evil CEO (Tilda Swinton) and an insane zoologist (Jake Gyllenhaal), to return Okja to her rightful home. It’s Bong’s most accessible film without losing any of his particular brand of madness.
With a larger budget and global distribution on Netflix, which funded the film, Bong puts together a shiny rollercoaster of a movie, with madcap chase scenes, fart jokes, and a heart-stopping climax that takes viewers inside a slaughterhouse to make a rich and timely point about the rights of animals. Okja has some trouble maintaining its frenetic pace, leading to significant lulls, but if nothing else, it demonstrates that Bong, a filmmaker who has often seemed handcuffed to his own peculiarities, has the ability to expand his view. If in Barking Dogs Never Bite, Bong saw animals as the enemy in his fight for economic justice, in Okja, he is ready to enlist them in the fight. Available to stream on Netflix.
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