Bong Joon Ho: Dissident Cinema
Korean director Bong Joon Ho made history at the ninety-second Academy Awards, when Parasite (2019) became the first non-English film to win Best Picture. During his acceptance speech for Best Director (another victory), he said, “I will drink until next morning.”
Bong is well-known for his irreverent sense of humor, a persona that belies his attention to detail. Bong’s quality of precision, known in the Korean industry as “Bongtail,” is one of the organizing themes of Karen Han’s new book, Bong Joon Ho: Dissident Cinema. The fourth book in a series on auteurs released by Abrams Books and designed by the film magazine Little White Lies, the book is the first in the series written by Han. (The first three were authored by Adam Nayman about the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David Fincher, respectively.)
Han, a Los Angeles-based culture writer and screenwriter, tackles each of Bong’s seven feature films in sequence, followed by an essay on his short films and music videos. These examinations are complemented by vignettes of Bong’s influences for each film (such as Psycho  for Mother ), as well as interviews with some of his frequent collaborators, including Tilda Swinton.
According to Han, part of the meaning of “Bongtail” is that Bong doesn’t shoot any coverage. Thanks to his tight screenplays and extensive pre-production research, he shoots only what he deems necessary. The same principle might apply to Han’s book. As a careful survey of a filmmaker whose work is not yet finished, Dissident Cinema is a compelling appraisal and appreciation of Bong’s body of work. However, for the reader in search of a skeleton key into a total understanding of Bong’s process, the book’s insights are limited. Despite being full of telling “Bongtails,” the book’s essays don’t completely “solve” Bong Joon Ho. Maybe this is by design. The author, like her subject, works in precise detail, yet refrains from forwarding an overarching theory beyond Bongtail. And perhaps such restraint is wise, as Bong’s career trajectory promises more material to mull over in the years to come.
Like other acclaimed twenty-first century Korean films such as Save the Green Planet! (2003) and The Wailing (2016), Bong’s films have often fused disparate film genres in ways that might seem unconventional to Western audiences. Bong’s The Host (2006) starts out like a classic 1950s monster movie—until it morphs into a pandemic thriller. Bong’s Netflix film, Okja (2017), might seem like an homage to a kid-friendly Miyazaki cartoon, centered on the relationship between a young girl and the titular genetically modified super-pig, if not for the film’s unflinching profanity and harrowing scenes set at a slaughterhouse. In an even more outlandish premise, the Marxist climate thriller Snowpiercer (2013) enlists Chris Evans as the film’s hero trying to overthrow a caste system while on a train that perpetually circles Snowball Earth—before revealing that Captain America is a reformed cannibal.
Han complicates the reading of Bong’s obvious satirical targets, such as the “Agent Yellow” chemical weapon used against the monster in The Host as a thinly veiled reference to Agent Orange, with less obvious touchpoints. In Okja, Han draws attention to a visual of the top brass of the Mirando Corporation reviewing a video of the super-pig’s escape as a one-to-one parody of Situation Room, the 2011 Pete Souza photograph which depicted President Obama and Hillary Clinton observing the Osama bin Laden raid.
Han pays special attention to Bong’s engagement with topics rarely considered in other films, such as the politically distorting American military presence in Korea. After explaining The Host’s plot twist that the virus thought to be spread by the monster is in fact a hoax perpetrated by the American government, Han argues that “the absurdity of the government’s quest to find a virus [is] itself an allusion to the Iraq War and the fact that the theoretical reason for invasion (weapons of mass destruction) never existed.”
According to Han, Bong’s frequent parodies of authority are a result of his background as “something of a dissident.” He enrolled at Yonsei University in 1988 following the June Democratic Struggle, in which students protested the military regime which then ruled South Korea. These protests culminated in the establishment of the country’s current democratic administration. Bong participated in the protests, which left an impression on his work. As Han writes, Bong “sometimes smells tear gas in his dreams.” Intriguingly, the image of “noxious gas seeping into the frame” recurs throughout his filmography, most prominently in The Host.
Insightful, too, is Han’s contextualization of Bong’s career-making crime thriller, Memories of Murder (2003), a dramatization of South Korea’s first known serial killer investigation that stretched from 1986 to 1991—a case that went unsolved until 2019, when DNA evidence forced the confession of a convict already serving a life sentence for another murder. Because the suspect had not yet been caught at the time of production, actor Song Kang Ho directly addresses the camera at the film’s conclusion. It’s a striking moment that suggests the detective character is speaking to the real killer himself, lurking somewhere in the audience. “Even more unbelievable was the fact that [the confessed killer] had seen Memories of Murder,” Han explains, adding that the killer said he “felt nothing while watching it.” The killer’s answer, while shocking, “makes the end of the movie even more tragic given that final shot’s intention.”
The most tantalizing Bongtails, however, are the anecdotes offered in the interviews with the director’s collaborators. For one, the interview with Tilda Swinton is a treasure. The acclaimed actor has played iconic roles in two of Bong’s films—Minister Mason in Snowpiercer, the scolding caricature of the upper class, and the zany Mirando twins in Okja (one a proxy for Ivanka Trump, the other for her father). We learn that Mason, originally written as a “mild-mannered man,” was turned into a madcap satire through Swinton and Bong’s improvisation. As Swinton recalls: “I remember putting on a whole bunch of dressing-up clothes in our drawing room… And we just played like a bunch of six-year-olds, really—dressing me up.”
Other interviews hint at distinctions between Korean and American culture that otherwise might go unexamined. For example, Bong’s frequent film editor Yang Jinmo explains that he was so terrified of disrespecting Bong at their first meeting that he ate a crab dish despite a shellfish allergy. Alluding to the Korean norm of deferring to seniority, Jinmo stated, “So I forced myself to eat it… my mouth was totally swollen, and my throat.” The perceived necessity for his Korean collaborators to obfuscate their own personal needs is a fascinating (and perhaps troubling) irony. Even though Han outlines the historical and geopolitical context of South Korea where necessary, such anecdotes confirm that many less obvious cultural dimensions of Bong’s world remain out of focus for many American readers.
On occasion, the book champions Bong’s work to the point it actively avoids dwelling on the filmmaker’s controversial decisions, like the scene in Okja where the otherwise idealistic eco-terrorist leader played by Paul Dano brutally beats his underling (played by Steven Yeun), a moment that gave other critics pause.
That said, Han’s restraint has its advantages. It’s hard to close the book on a star filmmaker whose body of work is so multifaceted and who appears to be at the midpoint of his career. Han concludes her work by alluding to at least four future projects that the director has mentioned to the media. As she writes, “That it’s impossible to guess what kind of story Bong will tell next is part of his appeal as a storyteller—it’s a pleasure to be swept away.”