Oh, so you learned how to read and watched Parasite? Congratulations! As the newly Oscar-minted director Bong Joon Ho said onstage at the Golden Globes: “Once you’ve overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” To that end, we know you might be curious about some of the other Korean-language works from Bong Joon Ho that haven’t received the global attention of his mixed-language releases like Snowpiercer (2013), his revolutionary uprising set in a speeding train, or Okja (2017), his descent into the bowels of factory farming via an adorable, genetically engineered superpig. And while both films boast Bong’s biggest budgets, his best work still might be the movies set domestically in South Korea, like Memories of Murder and Mother, where you would have to read, ahem, subtitles if you don’t speak Korean. So foreign-language fluency aside, we’ve put together a little guide to some of the deeper cuts in Bong Joon Ho’s oeuvre that display his breadth and evolution as one of the modern heirs to Hitchcock.
Incoherence is Bong’s thesis film made during his time at the Korean Academy of Film Art, and features a four-part story (told in episodes) of various public figures in the intellectual class of Korean society (like professors and public prosecutors) who criticize the younger generation for malfeasance, laziness, and sexual immorality all while doing these acts in private. In person, Bong said that he’s “partially proud” of the film for its structure and some camera movements, many of which can be seen in episode two, as he tracks the editor-in-chief of the Chosun Ilbo (a famously conservative national paper), who steals milk from other people’s houses. The film contains many of Bong’s obsessions: a satirical stab at the wealthy, long tracking shots, and the trope of fake news.
Most of it is available on YouTube.
Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
While the Korean title more straightforwardly references its original inspiration, The Dog of Flanders, the film itself is entirely original and Bong Joon Ho’s first feature film that he both wrote and directed. As such, while there are familiar thematic concerns — a circle of malfeasance, the hypocrisy of the Korean elite — it’s very much still an early project, in which he’s working out his style. The protagonist is an ornery, unemployed academic (Lee Sung-jae) who becomes fixated on a barking dog in his apartment complex, and goes to extreme lengths to silence it. Meanwhile Bae Doona (Sense8; The Host) plays the one trying to save the animals. There’s a memorable visual in the film where a roll of toilet paper unfurls onto the street — a handy metaphor for tracing a through line from Barking Dogs to Parasite.
Barking Dogs Never Bite is currently streaming for free on Tubi.
Memories of Murder (2003)
At a retrospective screening of Memories of Murder in New York last month, Bong acknowledged that there were spiritual similarities between his crime drama and the 2007 movie Zodiac — but, he pointed out, as much as he’s a fan of David Fincher, his film came first. Memories of Murder is, like Zodiac, about a search for a serial killer that becomes more about the mental states of the men in charge of the investigation as it stretches on and resources are taxed. They’re a pair of detectives — one a blustery local played by Bong’s muse Song Kang-ho, the other an aloof but more experienced investigator from Seoul — who clash at first, then become close. But their odd-couple partnership doesn’t make them any better equipped to proceed or the answers more forthcoming. Memories of Murder plays, in some ways, like an anti-procedural, as much about fumbled information and lost opportunities as about who may be responsible for the gruesome happenings. It begins as a story of a crime and becomes, imperceptibly, one about a tragedy enveloping not just the murderer’s victims but the men who find themselves splintering under the pressure to catch him.
Memories of Murder is streaming for free on Popcornflix right now, and Neon, the company that released Parasite, recently picked up the film for a Blu-ray and theatrical release.
This short film from 2004 is both a fascinating technical exercise as well as the bleakest distillation of Bong Joon Ho’s worldview of the unrelenting brutality of life under capitalism. He shot the film as part of a digital-shorts grant through the Jeonju International Film Festival, and made it to look as though it were cobbled together from found footage taken from CCTV cameras rigged around Seoul. It’s through this surveillance footage that he begins to tell a narrative of a businessman who loses his job and gradually turns to violent crime over the years. There’s no dialogue, and the shots are often fixed at odd angles (except for one scene that rather horrifyingly uses an oscillating security camera in a parking lot) — all of which only manages to heighten the darkness of the physical comedy. Influenza is probably Bong’s work that most directly speaks to the absolute devastation wrought by the IMF crisis of 1997 on modern Korean society.
It’s available to rent or buy on Grasshopper Film.
The Host (2006)
In South Korea, this 2006 phenom about a mutant that crawls out of the Han River to terrorize Seoul still holds the record as Bong’s highest-grossing hit. Given the director, though, you should know better than to expect any of the standard creature-feature beats. The monster in The Host is an ungainly creation born from the illegal dumping of chemicals on an American Army base. Years later, in a sequence that’s equal parts frightening and funny, it emerges to gallop alongside the riverbank, gobbling up and regurgitating random leisure seekers unlucky enough to get in its way. While it makes off with children and leaves destruction in its wake, it’s never as scary as the partnership between the Korean government and the U.S. military that lurches into motion to deal with it, instantly becoming a morass of misinformation and trampled rights. As is always the case in Bong’s work, it’s the lumbering systems that are most likely to crush individuals underfoot — especially if they’re as powerless as the ragtag family at the film’s heart. The clan of oddballs and down-and-outs has more than a little in common with the Kim family in Parasite, including Song as a hapless patriarch.
The Host is streaming for free on Tubi.
The opening and closing scenes of Bong’s masterful 2009 film are, swear to God, among the greatest bookends in movie history. They both involve the unnamed protagonist, a small-town widow played by the incredible Kim Hye-ja, dancing. The first, which takes place in a grassy clearing while the credits appear onscreen, is a sequence of deadpan absurdism. The second occurs on a bus in the golden sunlight of a late afternoon, and is utterly devastating. What unfolds in between these points is a thriller about a woman whose life is turned upside down when the son she dotes on and lives for, a teenager with an intellectual disability played by Won Bin, is accused of murder. When she first starts trying to clear his name, Mother comes across as a blackly and unpredictably funny story of an unlikely amateur detective in over her head. But the film soon reveals depths much murkier than you’d ever initially expect, delving into what it means to love someone so much that there’s no price you wouldn’t pay to protect them, no matter the cost to yourself.
Mother is available to rent on all the usual platforms.