During the career of any artist trying to produce a personal vision of art through which one can see the world, s/he ends up creating a personal philosophy through his/her films. This is what Bong Joon Ho does, during his career in Cinema spanning from 1994until now, from his first short film “Memories in My Frame”, to his recent full length film “Parasite” (2019), he proves himself to be an auteur-director. Parasite is not the only film that made the name “Bong Joon Ho” a household one, he is also known for films such as “Okja (2017), Snow piercer (2013), Mother (2009), The Host (2006), and Memories of Murder (2003).There can be many motivations to produce a film, for Bong Joon Ho it is always the society and the individuals, these are the two elements that motivate him to uphold a picture of society and his art combines humanity and artistic excellence to create the above mentioned gems.
The 15 films in his oeuvre consist of both long and short fictions. There are some familiar points and relationships among these films, like conflicting human relationships as shown in Mother and Snow Piercer, conflict between human and nature as in Okja and The Host, human and society as in Parasite.
An intersection is seen in Bong Joon Ho’s films between the concept of modernity based on individualism, and the power of Korean society with its conservative customs and traditions, a society undergoing changes in recent times which is always made evident in his work. Although the stories and characters in each film differ in their motivations, there are familiar elements across the films in the director’s repertoire. For instance, in “Mother”, 2009, the protagonist in the film who tries to solve her own son’s problems and save him from execution after he is charged with murder. In “Okja”, 2017, there’s a girl who risks saving her best friend- a fascinating beast “Okja” from certain death. In “The Host” 2006, the father and the family, try to the best of their efforts to release a young girl from the water monster. So, these films underscore a common theme of survival, from people or nature or law.
The idea of survival appears effective in “Parasite” (2019) too, where a family tries to survive and climb the social ladder in a society controlled by capital, and without any concept of human rights. There is a concept/notion of individualism in Bong Joon Ho’s films, where the heroes depend on themselves while fighting personal problems or tries to achieve salvation by their own selves. Heroes in Joon Ho’s films are related to each other through their individualism.
Individualism and transcendence
In the anthology film “Incoherence” 1994, there are three short stories about men who belong to the upper or elite class in Korean society. These three men commit three foolish mistakes which seem to be unlikely and hard to expect from men of their position.
After their terrible day at the office these three men appear on a TV show to discuss social disorder, and these scenes clearly bring out the disturbance plaguing the elite people of Korean society, and indifference with which the producers of such shows deal and discuss problems of social disorder and interact with people suffering from disorderly behavior.
Although the three men appear in separate stories, they provide a dual model for the modern man, a model that combines the apparent civilizational advancement with moral decay. If “Incoherence” 1994 just provided the problem, where there was a division between the elite and the society, the change came in the following films like Mother 2009, The Host 2006, Okja 2017. Characters in those films were more active and goal oriented, driven by a desire to change their reality and lives. At the same time, the simplicity of some of the characters and their low ambitions and their gullibility, made them weak characters in the margins of life. They seem to be content with their uncomplicated life until reality shocks them.
In “The Host” 2006, the father “Park Gang-Doo\Song Kang-Ho” is a man who does not care about anything around him, similarly in “Mother” 2009, there is the son Yoon Do-joon\ Won Bin who suffers from mental disability and is involved in a murder crime.The farmer girl in Okja 2017, like the previous two characters, enjoys a homely life with a fantastic animal (Okja).The three characters are related to each other, in the sense, that they do not care about material things in life, they enjoy a simple life without a relationship with the material society, and are thus shocked by the complex external world and the laws that rule that world depending on material things. While capitalism tries to portray a benevolent image by creating a false identity that enjoys nature and cares about it, as Lucy Mirando \Nancy Mirando\ Tilda Swinton in Okja does, while keeping a tight lease on the humans in the margins of society to achieve material gain.
Solidarity for change
In ” Snowpiercer” 2013, there is a separation between lucky people who lead a first-class life, seen literally in the way they are at the front of the train while there are poor people who barely make a living, who soldiers through to change their terrible fate by fighting the first-class people and take their side. In “Snowpiercer” a group of less fortunate persons meet, to change their bad reality, unlike the individual in Mother, Okja, and The Host, who fight a solitary battle. This is the development of Bong Joon Ho’s world vision- the solidarity of individuals versus capitalism to save humanism.
The individual and achieving justice
There are crimes- murder, accused, rescue attempts, and security failures as seen in Mother and Memories of Murder. Especially in Memories of Murder, where the police appear gaunt and confused, a narrative based on true events of murder crime committed by a serial killer in a village far from the capital. The police officers in Memories of Murder seem incompetent, inept, and lack skills. They cannot detect the criminal, especially in the absence of evidence, only relying on personal analysis. Therefore, the case is closed without trial, and the accused runs free, despite the passage of years. In “Mother”, there is the mother\ Hye-Ja Kim who seeks to release her son and gets involved in a crime while trying to hide the son’s crime in her attempt to achieve individual justice. The common point in most of Bong Joon Ho’s films are that the characters are convinced of the police being irresponsible parties in the country, incapable of solving the problems or save people from a catastrophic situation, thus the people have to become a community of justice by themselves.
In the early 2000s the Hallyu expression emerges in Korean entertainment and popular culture causing a great sensation in the world with music, TV dramas, and films. Over the last decade, rising voices against the Hallyu wave in films and drama and other entertainment ways, consider Bong Joon Ho’s films as a model for this anti wave. The Hallyu wave avoids the bloodshed and scenes of violence and massacres, unlike what Bong Joon Ho offers in his films, where bloody confrontations are common, and these bloody portrayals seem to be increasing with each film.
In the last Bong Joon Ho’s film “Parasite” 2019, there is a class struggle and an ambition for class advancement. In this film, Bong Joon Ho presents a conflict, a confrontation with the Hallyu wave and the apparent civilized appearance depicted in the Hallyu wave. In Parasite, we are not requiring to make a moral judgment on the characters any more. The protagonist family wants to be rich and be a part of civil society, similar to the American dream that the working class of America dreamt of achieving, the most common dream in the world, the dream belonging to capitalism expressed by the wealthy family that resembles the images of civilization shown in Hallyu.
The low-income family in Parasite seeks to abandon their terrible life by faking their personality in order to be accepted in the society of the rich people, which is the only way they can think of to change their lives. The film raises many questions about human being and the individual ambitions and the societal rejection that low-income families face, despite Bong Joon Ho’s clear and colorful cinematic images used in The Parasite.
The characters in Bong Joon Ho’s films are related to each other by their pain, whether it is an individual’s pain or a community’s pain. Pain is important in character formation in his films, where there is tragedy or suffering in Hero’s journey, loss, and compensation, there is an underlying theme of pain in the films and the hero’s sufferings and an elegy of pain is created when the films end. Usually, the reason for pain is outside the immediate surroundings of the heroes, like nature in The Host, sciences in Okja, ambition in Parasite, and in Snowpiecer it is the people, particularly the elites who enacts law and chooses natural selection as an option to create a balance in the train.
The landscape the Snowpiecer presents is post apocalypse when the ice age begins. The survivors are divided into two groups; each one remains an enemy to other one, so every group has the desire to get rid of the other one.
Curtis\ Chris Evans appears as a leader of the marginalized group trying to plot a coup, but ends up being a tool in the hands of Wilford\ Ed Harris, the leader of elite, like Wilford wanted. Wilford is a personification of the government\system\power\capitalism that enact the law and push matters in society\train while Curtis represents false heroism in the train\society. So Bong Joon Ho’s solution to overthrow capitalism ends up damaging the train\society and humans have to start from the beginning making it the first human struggle with genuine nature. Curtis is universal humanity against capitalism and power and becomes a tool or gear in a large machine, which in the film were the children who were used as human gear. Everyone in the train\society had different size and value according to which they had to perform a specific job and serve the system.
Individual and the Displacement of the other
In Snowpiecer and Parasite, there is a relationship between individuals, Curtis\poor people should fight and kill the rich people\elite to live, in Parasite the low-income family should get rid for the rich family to live, the question remains, do we need to get rid of each other to get a life?
In Okja, there is a breakdown of the human model especially, seen through Johnny Wilcox\ Jake Gyllenhaal, who loses the value of humanity in himself and ends up being an image of grandeur for the big company which claims of good vibes and good values, like big global companies do. Scientists are just banners to serve the great image, which is usually false.
On the other hand, a farmer girl has the purity of humanity and tries to save the animal\partner in our life that is nature, while the ‘civil society’ destroys our human soul and replaces it with materialism.
Individual, Society, and Political
In Memories of Murder, the plot is set in the village near Seoul after the political demonstrations of 1986 aimed to change to a democratic system and to protest the savagery of police officers that was going on for a long time; the same savagery that police officers use in the film seen through the actions of Detective Park Doo-man \ Song Kang-Ho, Detective Cho Yong-Koo\ Roe-ha Kim. The police officers in the film did not have another method to treat the problem and resolve the case except by violence because this is the only way they knew. Similarly, in Parasite, violence carries out a huge role to transform the equation between families.
One must have the power to make a change, but that power can never only be money, strength, or deadly weapons, but by dialogues, cohabitation, and humaneness that permanent change for a better world can be achieved.
Memories of Murder 2003
The Host 2006
Snow piercer 2013
*Egyptian film critic