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Film

Bong Joon-Ho discusses how his films defy genre

Thanks to the monumental success of the 2019 film Parasite, director Bong Joon-Ho has been elevated to the status of a cinematic juggernaut, joining the likes of Denis Villeneuve, the Safdie Brothers, Greta Gerwig and Chloé Zhao in the ranks of the most pertinent contemporary filmmakers. Winning both the coveted Best Picture Oscar at the 92nd Academy Awards as well as the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Parasite caught audiences and critics in a whirlwind of excitement as they deconstructed the socially-aware thriller.

Defying traditional genre, Parasite is a drama, thriller and social satire, picking apart the constructs of modern society, following a poor family who manages to infiltrate a rich household, Bong Joon-Ho interrogates the question of ‘who is the real parasite?’. With an impressive ensemble cast including Choi Woo-shik, Cho Yeo Jeong, Park So-dam and Kang-ho Song, Parasite creates a boiling pot of tension that spills into chaos in the final act. 

A universal story that defies cultures and creeds, Bong Joon-Ho’s film caught the world by storm and became an international critical and commercial success, so much so that HBO has picked the film up for a limited TV series. Speaking to The Guardian about how he approached the themes of the film, Bong Joon-Ho stated: “This film deals with a situation where that minimal amount of respect you should have towards another human being is completely destroyed and ignored”. 

The director’s 2019 film isn’t alone in this defiance of genre either, with his previous films also occupying an undefined space of cinema. Released on Netflix, Okja was a peculiar pro-environment science-fiction drama, whilst his 2006 horror The Host also dealt with his South-Korean heritage despite appearing on the surface to be a simple, strange creature feature. 

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Asked how he approaches the tone of his films in an interview with the American Film Institute (AFI), Bong Joon-Ho explained: “I often get that question during festivals or press interviews but it’s always difficult to give you an answer because I’m never really conscious of it when I’m writing or shooting”. In fact, as the director further adds, he only notices the constant tonal shifts of his film when it’s finished, noting, “I’m surprised by it too. It just feels natural to me”. 

Marketing such an undefined film is no easy task and the director jokes about this too, recognising “my marketing team tends to have a difficult time with me,” as they push to define the film by a genre, only to realise such is impossible. Finding comfort in the praise and tribute of others, Bong Joon-Ho remembers the words of an American reporter at the Cannes Film Festival who noted that the director is “a genre unto himself”. 

It is this loose definition that the filmmaker prefers, stating “I felt happy hearing that. It was liberating,” with each of Bong Joon-Ho’s films being infused with a sharp sense of social consciousness as well as cinematic proficiency.