Perhaps no working filmmaker has a more complicated relationship with America and its cinema than Bong Joon-ho. Decades before the writer-director began breaking box office records in Korea, then sweeping the Korean equivalent of the Oscars, then crushing the American box office, then preparing to compete in the actual Oscars, Bong was a little boy in South Korea watching Hollywood movies on the American Forces Network. Glued to the English-language channel for U.S. service members stationed in Korea, Bong devoured films from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Sidney Lumet, and John Frankenheimer, noticing even then the studio filmmakers who managed to achieve an authorial style. It would be years before he arrived in Hollywood, but he was already what Koreans call a “Hollywood kid.”
Bong’s passion for American film has long been tangled up in his complex feelings about the role of the American military in his home country. In America, the Korean War is often referred to as the “Forgotten War,” but in Korea, its effects linger. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Bong was growing up, the U.S. service members who were ostensibly there to help prop up the forces of freedom bolstered a series of military dictatorships instead. In college, he majored in sociology, but his interests veered more toward two other subjects: the pro-democracy protests that were then gripping Korea and his first love, the movies.
His debut feature, 2000’s Barking Dogs Never Bite, wasn’t very good. “Please forget it,” he told me recently when I met up with him earlier this month for an interview looking back on his career up through his latest, Parasite. “It’s a very stupid movie.” His sophomore film, 2003’s Memories of Murder,a Zodiac-Esque study of the failed search for Korea’s first serial killer and the psychic toll it takes on its detectives, catapulted him to the apex of Korean cinema, winning him best picture and best director at the country’s top cinema honors, the Grand Bell Awards.
As successful as Memories of Murder was, it was Bong’s third film that launched him into the stratosphere. 2006’s The Host was a blockbuster in every sense of the word. It was a monster movie, part Jaws and part Godzilla, about an amphibious creature terrorizing Seoul, rendered in cutting-edge visual effects. By the end of that year, it had become the highest-grossing South Korean film in the country’s history and an international phenomenon. In 2009, Quentin Tarantino named it one of his favorite movies of the past two decades, and he later cited Memories of Murder and The Host to compare Bong’s work during this period to Steven Spielberg’s storied run in the 1970s.
But as much as The Host was influenced by American movies like Jaws, the daddy shark that begat the whole blockbuster category, it also turned the tools of American blockbuster filmmaking as weapons back against itself—and the country that launched them. The Host’s monster was inspired by an actual incident in 2000, in which the U.S. military ordered toxic chemicals to be dumped into a waterway that led to Seoul’s Han River. But the mutant creature is, in some ways, a red herring. As the movie goes on, it becomes clear that Bong is more interested in exploring what it’s like to live in the shadow of the American military-industrial complex. The Korean state, working with American forces, uses the creature to stoke fears about a virus, a weapon of mass destruction that’s supposedly spread by the creature but, the movie later reveals, does not really exist. Instead, the supposed disease is little more than an excuse for these joint military forces to take further control. By the end of the movie, the allied governments try to defeat the creature using an experimental chemical weapon, but they end up mostly harming a group of young Korean protesters. The weapon is called Agent Yellow.
The Host was quickly recognized in Korea as one of the first films to protest America’s military presence in the country so openly. (It also plays like a thinly veiled critique of America’s failed search for WMD in Iraq.) “It was natural for me to satirize American society using the style of an American film,” Bong recalled about the film. “I never thought there was a contradiction there.”This set the template for much of the rest of his career, all the way up through his richly allegorical, deeply subversive, and yet somehow breezily entertaining latest, Parasite. After following The Host with 2009’s Mother, a genre-bending noir about a Korean widow who will stop at nothing to exonerate her son, Bong made his next two films with American actors and American money and used them to critique, among other targets, America itself. Like The Host, 2013’s Snowpiercerbegins with an environmental disaster. A bungled attempt at fighting global warming via geoengineering sends the planet into a new ice age, with what’s left of humanity confined to one Noah’s Ark–like a train. But as with The Host, the thriller’s primary subject isn’t, ultimately, the environment. Instead, it’s the grotesquerie of global inequality, as the proles crowded into the sweatshop like rear cars force their way to the sumptuous front in a violent uprising, discovering in the process just how many cars are dedicated to luxuries like saunas and sushi. Hollywood becomes a target as well: This would-be revolution, the autocratic tycoon Wilford (Ed Harris) suggests late in the film, was part of his plan all along, a way of maintaining the status quo via a distracting “blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot”—the blockbuster as opium for the masses.