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Film

Ranking the films of Bong Joon-ho in order of greatness

@Russellisation

One of the most successful independent films of recent memory, Parasite won both Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign-language film to win the award, as well as the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Strikingly original, Parasite helped to popularise the films of Bong Joon-ho, a director that has long been appreciated in the world of independent cinema. Experimenting with genre, humour and surreal opinions on social issues, Bong Joon-ho is a wonderful creative with a meticulous eye for detail and an innate love for the art form. In fact, his love for cinema reaches such lengths that whilst he picked up his coveted award at the 2020 Oscar ceremony, he couldn’t help but doff his cap to his fellow contemporaries. 

“After winning best international feature, I thought I was done for the day and was ready to relax,” Bong said after winning Best Director. “Thank you so much. When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is that, ‘The most personal is the most creative,'” he concluded. 

Celebrating the 52nd birthday of the influential South Korean filmmaker, let’s take a look at a rundown of his career so far and rank his current filmography:

Bong Joon-ho films ranked from worst to best:

7. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

At the dawn of the new millennium, Bong Joon-ho brought audiences his feature directorial debut with Barking Dogs Never Bite, a bleak comedy that follows an academic who wages war against a barking dog in his apartment building. 

A solid debut feature made on a minuscule scale, Barking Dogs Never Bite largely takes place in a single apartment block and features all the hallmarks of the celebrated director, including his meticulous camerawork, intricate story and subtle social commentary. Starring Bae Doona in one of her earliest film roles, Barking Dogs Never Bite may not be Bong Joon-ho’s greatest film, but it remains excellent in its own right. 

6. Snowpiercer (2013)

This strange hybrid of South Korean and Western influence featured Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Song Kang-ho and John Hurt and was spiked with social commentary, following the story of a train that travels around the globe possessing a rigid class system.

It’s a staggeringly original post-apocalyptic vision that well suffuses its own social commentary, even if it does become a little heavy-handed. With a budget of $40 million, this is by far Bong Joon-ho’s most commercial project, working with an international cast and crew, including the American screenwriter Kelly Masterson. Elevated by its tremendous production design and cinematography, Snowpiercer becomes greater than the sum of its parts. 

5. Okja (2017)

An important, environmentally pertinent film, Okja was a major acquisition from Netflix in 2017, helping them to establish themselves as serious competitors in the realm of filmmaking. It helps that Okja remains a captivating watch.

This modern-day fable heavily criticises the state of modern factory farming doing so by constantly flitting between moments of gentle grace and surprising brutality. With a massive CGI pig taking the films headlines, Okja follows a young girl and her relationship with the creature whilst she bats away interest from a multinational organisation. Perfectly blending social commentary with riveting drama, Okja makes a genuinely compelling case for a meat-free lifestyle.

4. The Host (2006)

Bong Joon-ho’s monster movie, The Host, was in many ways the film that would catapult him to international recognition, updating the monster movie genre with pertinent social commentary and avoidance of cliche. 

Like many films of the same ilk, The Host tells us more about the intricacies of human relationships than it does about the psychology of a supernatural titan, with the film following the family of the monster’s victim as they do what they can to rescue her. A genre-bender and genuine eye-opener for South Korean cinema, Quentin Tarantino often voices his love for the film, commenting at the Busan International film festival, “It’s funny because the whole idea that a family, not just any family, but a weird, fucked up family like in The Host would be the stars is unfathomable in the US, or any country. That is recreating the genre”.

3. Mother (2009)

Perhaps Bong Joon-ho’s most underappreciated film, Mother followed the release of The Host and brought the director back to his quieter, narrative-driven roots, following a story about a mother desperately searching for the killer who framed her son for murder.

A master of intricate drama and compelling mystery, Bong Joon-ho handles the pacing and unfolding of the film’s story with deft creative proficiency. Unsurprisingly, Mother also features one of the director’s most rousing rallying cries for social equality, highlighting the difference between rich and poor, rural and urban. A mystery and emotionally stirring family drama rolled into one, Mother is a subtle classic.

2. Parasite (2019)

The film that took Bong Joon-ho from obscurity to a major player in the film industry was undoubtedly his 2019 Best Picture and Palme d’Or winner, Parasite, becoming the very first foreign film to take home the academy award.

Following a family who attempts to assimilate themselves into the lives of a rich family, Parasite is remarkable partly because it is so strikingly original; it doesn’t remind you of any other film or category and doesn’t seem to mimic or borrow from anything else. It is difficult even to classify; Bong has referred to it as a tragi-comedy, but it does not fit easily into any particular genre, defying categorisation and evading film conventions as easily as its storyline continually defies expectations. 

1. Memories of Murder (2003)

Whilst Parasite would undoubtedly bring Bong Joon-ho to the industry forefront, such a film wouldn’t have been made had it not been for his 2003 murder-mystery masterpiece Memories of Murder that helped to formulate and sculpt the filmmaker’s craft. 

Loosely based on the real-life case of Korea’s first confirmed serial murders, which took place between 1986 and 1991, Bong Joon-ho’s film follows two detectives who struggle with the case and pursue an unknown culprit. Ill-equipped to deal with such a situation, the small-town cops are faced with an entirely new challenge, with Joon-ho masterfully crafting this fact into a story that is not only narratively thrilling but also surprisingly funny and emotional.

Where other true crime stories do away with humanity in favour of the spectacle and horror of crime, Bong Joon-ho prefers to linger on the individual, highlight the emotion and punctuate this with terror. 

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