“The filmmakers, who you like very much define who you are” – that’s how Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro begins his examination of the work of Bong Joon-Ho. The South Korean film director has been making work since the early 2000s and has been a leading voice in his own country for almost as long. Elsewhere, however, he has only really risen to prominence within the last decade or so, having released Snowpiercer in 2013, which was then followed by 2017’s environmental masterpiece Okja and then by 2019’s Parasite, which won the 2020 Academy Award for Best Picture. However, for del Toro, it is Joon-Ho’s 2003 film Memories of Murder that best showcases the director’s control of form, narrative, and technical skill.
Like that of Bong Joon-Ho, Guillermo del Toro’s name is synonymous with a particular type of cinema, one that seems to have arrived practically full formed with his 1993 film debut Cronos. Over the next decade and a half, he honed his fantastical and yet highly politicised brand of horror with the likes of The Devil’s Backbone in 2001 and, of course, the chillingly ornate Pan’s Labyrinth which was released in 2006.
Speaking about Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder, del Toro said: “[He] is someone who clearly knows what boundaries and what composition is required to identify a genre and then go about articulating it, and that’s what Bong is doing”.
Adding: “There is for me a kinship with Bong at many levels in this desire to take what would be a genre piece and put it through the prism of a concrete historical, social context that changes the way the piece can be read because it is not just something that happens somewhere“.
Certainly, neither del Toro nor Joon Ho has ever backed away from imbuing their work with weighty political themes. Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are both set in Spain either during or immediately after the Civil War, allowing the director to use elements of fantasy and horror to bring the ghosts of that conflict to the surface and to allow modern audiences to commune with this traumatic period of history in a way that is both healthy, safe, and therapeutic. Similarly, Joon Ho’s Okja offers its audience a slightly warped reality in which fantastical creatures are slaughtered on mass and packaged for worldwide consumption, offering a criticism of the meat industry without having to rely on documentary-style filmmaking.
Dissecting Bong Joon-Ho’s decision to set Memories of Murder, which focuses on a serial murder case of ten women during a period of intense police repression, del Toro said: “What I think is interesting about setting it in that particular time is that you are examining an explosive moment in which there’s military repression, where the police beat every suspect. There’s a very, very systemic, masculine, overbearing structure to everything.”
Clearly, both del Toro and Joon Ho recognise how settings greatly affect the actions that unfold within them, colouring characters, plot points and sections of dialogue with the thematic material that is so bound up with the context of the particular period of history the directors have chosen to locate their stories.