The Auteurs: Bong Joon-ho

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One of the figures of the Korean New Wave movement in the late 1990s/early 2000s, Bong Joon-ho is a filmmaker that is known for making dark films that defy convention. Never wanting to be pigeonholed as a filmmaker, Bong continually challenges himself by tackling various genres. His films always manage to offer some glimmer of hope even when telling dark and complicated stories. While he has only made a small number of films so far in his career, Bong Joon-ho has already established himself as one of international cinema’s most exciting filmmakers working today.

Born on September 14, 1969 in Daegu, South Korea, Bong Joon-ho comes from a revered family as his grandfather was a noted author and his father was a designer. Introduced to the world of cinema through his family, Bong decided from a young age that he wanted to become a filmmaker. During his time at Yonsei University, Bong Joon-ho’s love for cinema grew thanks in part to the works of Edward Yang, Shohei Imamura, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. While attending the Korean Academy of Film Arts, Bong made a few short films in 16mm – one of them was Incoherence which can be viewed here – and honed his craft writing screenplays for other filmmakers and working as an assistant director.

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Barking Dogs Never Bite (review)

Bong Joon-ho made his feature-film debut Barking Dogs Never Bite, a story inspired famous European legend A Dog of Flanders. Bong’s transformed the story into a black comedy about a part-time college professor Ko Yun-ji – who takes out his frustrations on the barking dogs in his apartment building – and his interactions with Park Hyam-nam, a woman in his building who is trying to locate the missing dogs he has kidnapped. The film allowed the Bong Joon-ho to explore themes of morality and desire as well as the harsh realities that come with striving to obtain a better life.

For the lead roles, Bong casted newcomers Lee Sung-jae and Bae Doona in the respective roles of Ko Yun-ji and Park Hyam-nam. Other cast members that eventually became part of the director’s regular group of actors included Kim Roi-ha as a mysterious homeless man and Byun Hee-bong as the apartment’s maintenance man. With the aid of cinematographers Jo Yong-gyu and Cho Yong-kyo, and editor Lee Eun-soo, Bong created something that was truly offbeat and darkly humorous. This all helped to evoke the sense of repression Ko Yun-ji was dealing with in his personal and professional life.

Barking Dogs Never Bite premiered in South Korea in February of 2000 and drew excellent reviews from critics. However, the film had a tough time attracting audiences during its theatrical run. The film went on to play film festival circuit between the fall of 2000 and early 2001. Barking Dogs Never Bite garnered strong word-of-mouth, especially at the San Sebastian Film Festival and the Slamdance Film Festival, and helped to raise awareness about the new wave of films that were coming out of South Korea.

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Memories of Murder (review)

Following the critical and festival success of his first feature, Bong Joon-ho decided to make a film be based on real-life events that reshaped South Korea during the 1980s. Adapting the play by Kim Kwang-rim, Memories of Murder revolved around two different detectives, Park Doo-Man (Song Kang-ho) and Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), trying to solve a series of murders by a mysterious serial killer. Aided by co-writer Shim Sung-bo, Bong created a mystery that defied typical conventions.

The production was a long one and endured financing troubles as Sidius, the production company behind the film, was on the verge of bankruptcy. Shot on location where the real-life murders took place, the film’s sense of realism was heightened by cinematographer’s Kim Hyung-hu use of lighting. This helped to enhance the dramatic aspect of the film, which focused on the chaotic ways in which the two detectives struggled to solve the crimes while not always having the proper tools. The epilogue nicely showcased both the feeling of loss that hangs over the region and the notion that some memories will never go away.

Upon its release in April of 2003 in South Korea, Memories of Murder became Bong Joon-ho’s first financial success. The film not only saved Sidius, but also raise the director’s visibility internationally. A major hit at various film festivals, Bong Joon-ho won a Best Director’s prize and a FIPRESCI prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

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The Host (review)

Following the success of Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho took a break from feature films to contribute to a couple of short films, including a 30-minute digitally-shot short called Influenza, to various anthologies. One short in particular was a 30-minute digitally-shot film called Twentidentity, which was created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Korean Academy of Film Arts. It was during the making of that short in the Han River in Seoul that Bong came up with the idea for his next feature film. Inspired by classic monster movies, The Host tells the tale of Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) who, with the help of his father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) and his sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona), attempts to save his daughter from a mysterious monster wreaking havoc on the city.

Co-written with Baek Chul-hyun, The Host aimed to be more than just a creature feature, it was also an examination of a dysfunctional family, who never reached their individual potentials, coming together in the face of a viral epidemic. The film was not only Bong Joon-ho’s most expensive feature to date, costing $12 million to make, but was also one of the most expensive films made within the Korean film industry at the time. To effectively capture the look of the monster, Bong enlisted the services of both American visual effects creator Kevin Rafferty and creature designer Chin Wei-chen. The film also marked first of several collaborations between Bong Joon-ho and music composer Lee Byung-woo.

The Host debuted at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival as part of the Director’s Fortnight programme. The film was both one of the biggest commercial successes in South Korean history, and was also a major breakthrough for Bong Joon-ho from international standpoint. The Host garnered numerous accolades including high praise from director Quentin Tarantino who listed the film as one of his favorite films since 1992.

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Tokyo! (Shaking Tokyo segment) (review)

Still buzzing from the astronomical success of The Host, Bong Joon-ho was asked to take part in an internationally-produced omnibus film set entirely in Tokyo. Tokyo! also featured short film contributions from talented directors Michel Gondry and Leos Carax. Fascinated by the phenomenon known as hikikomori, where people isolate themselves from the social world, the director focused his short a man (played by Teruyuki Kagawa) who confines himself in his apartment for a decade. His world is turned upside down when he gets a glimpse of a beautiful pizza delivery woman (played by Yu Aoi).

Embracing a more intimate and dramatic tone, Bong Joon-ho’s segment, Shaking Tokyo, strayed from the darker elements of his previous films. With the exception of composer Lee Byung-woo, Bong worked with a largely Japanese crew to make the short. Tokyo! made its premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and received positive reviews before getting a limited worldwide release.

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Mother (review)

For his next feature-film, Bong Joon-ho decided to revive the script for a suspense thriller he had been working on since Memories of Murder. Mother revolved around a middle-aged woman (Kim Hye-ja) trying to free her mentally-challenged son, Do-joon (Won Bin), who has been accused of murder. The film explores themes of memory and determination as the unnamed mother tries to figure out what really happened. Writing the project with Park Eun-kyo, Bong wanted to the film to be more than just some suspense-drama with elements of mystery. It was crucial for him that the mother be the one to drive the story forward.

Bong Joon-ho specifically wanted Kim Hye-ja for role of the titular character. As Kim was a popular actress on South Korean television, the role was considered a very daring departure from what she had previously done in her career. The move paid off for Kim Hye-ja’s as the role rejuvenated her career and introduced her to a whole new fan base. Kim’s performance was further accentuated by the naturalistic richness that cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo brought to the film.

Mother made its premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival as part of the festival’s Un Certain Regarde programme. The film drew rave reviews and was a critical and international sensation. Kim Hye-ja was awarded the Best Actress prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, while the film won a runner-up prize for Best Foreign-Language film from the L.A. critics group. The international success of Mother surprised Bong Joon-ho. It not only raised his profile as a director but had many around the world paying closer attention to the wonderful cinema that was coming out of South Korea.

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Snowpiercer (review)

After contributing another short film for an anthology film, entitled 3.11 A Sense of Home, which focused on the Tohuku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Bong Joon-ho took some time off from filmmaking to sit on the grand jury of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and head the Camera d’Or jury at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. It was around this time Bong Joon-ho conceived an ambitious adaptation of the graphic novel Le Transperceniege by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette. Bong spent several years working on Snowpiercer’s script which told the story of a group of people who survived a new ice age by staying on a train powered by a perpetual motion engine. Years of living being relegated to the back to the train (i.e. the poorer section) leads some to embark on a dangerous revolt that ultimately opens their eyes to the true nature of their environment.

In 2012, the director realized that the project was bigger than he had anticipated and hired Kelly Masterson to translate the script into English. For his first English-language feature, Bong Joon-ho decided to shoot $40 million production at the Barrandov Studios in Prague. Reteaming with cinematographer Hong Kyung-po, and with fellow filmmaker Park Chan-wook coming on board as a producer, Bong Joon-ho gathered a strong ensemble of actors to bring his vision to life. Aside from Bong regulars Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, the rest of the cast included Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, and Ewen Bremner. The post-production took much longer than the actual shoot as visual effects designer Eric Durst worked hard to create just the right look for the exterior shots of the train. Editors Steve M. Choe and Changju Kim were integral in not only shaping the film’s narrative but keeping the action moving at a brisk pace.

An international deal was struck with the Weinstein Company to release Snowpiercer after the film opened in South Korea in the summer of 2013. Despite the fact that it was a major success in South Korea, the American release was delayed due in part to Harvey Weinstein’s insistence that 20 minutes, of the Snowpiercer’s 126-minute running time, be cut from the film. Bong Joon-ho refused which caused a lengthy standoff. Though the director eventually won the battle, Snowpiercer was relegated to a limited theatrical release in the summer of 2014 before it premiered on video-on-demand. Though the hybrid release platform hindered the films overall box office somewhat, it was a modest financial success in the U.S., the film gained rave reviews from audiences and critics.

With only five feature films and several short films under his belt, there is no question that Bong Joon-ho has left his mark on the world of cinema. He has managed to bring a worldwide attention to South Korean cinema while finding inventive ways to approach each genre he tackles. As cinephiles eagerly await Bong Joon-ho’s next film, it is clear that he is a director who has brought a truly distinct voice to the cinematic landscape.

© thevoid99 2015