Bong Joon Ho at IFFR

Oscar-nominated Parasite gets unparalleled public recognition as it hits screening rooms; it may be your first encounter with Bong Joon Ho's work. However, the Korean filmmaker is a long-standing friend of IFFR; he will elaborate on his rich oeuvre during a unique Masterclass on Wednesday 29 January. Here is a preview.

The disclaimer ‘no animals were harmed during the making of this film’ is usually hidden somewhere in the credits. Barking Dogs Never Bite, however, opens with this statement. And with good reason, as the protagonist of this comedy thriller is so fed up with the sound of loud barking around him, that he contemplates throwing the mongrels from the roof of his apartment building. Bong Joon Ho's feature film debut immediately reveals his capability to present bizarre twists as completely normal, along with his penchant for mixing genres. Themes that are found in Parasite, such as poverty, class society and the criminal nature of man, also pop up in Bong's first major work, that was shown at IFFR in 2001.

The filmmaker's second creation, Memories of Murder, was released in 2003 and also featured at IFFR. This black comedy-cum-thriller was a big hit in South Korea, not in the least because of its topical content. The film is set in 1986, the year that South Korea’s first registered serial killer makes his first victim. Despite the fact that the police staged an extensive manhunt, ten more female victims would follow. At the time of shooting Memories of Murder, the perpetrator was still on the loose. Only a week before the American premiere of Parasite, the South Korean police announced that an already jailed, fifty-something criminal had confessed to the crimes. “When I read it in the papers, I was so shocked that I could not do anything for the rest of the day”, said Bong. In light of the recent developments and the success of ParasiteMemories of Murder is scheduled for another cinema release.

The Host was the hit film in South Korea 14 years ago, and was screened at IFFR in 2007. This almost Spielbergian adventure features a father, grandfather, uncle and aunt who battle a giant river monster that kidnapped a ten-year-old family member. The Host is more than just fancy special effects and quality action – it’s also full of political metaphors and South Korean self-mockery. Strangely enough, it never spawned a US remake but the cinematic spectacle is sure to have caught the attention of Hollywood.

The fourth film by Bong Joon Ho to be featured at IFFR, in 2010, was Mother. In this family drama and detective film, an obsessive mother is convinced that her mentally disabled son is innocent of committing a murder – while the negligent police force and corrupt law practitioners believe otherwise. Mama is forced to start her own investigation. “There is a Korean saying”, goes Bong, “that a mother’s best boyfriend is her son.”

While filming The Host, Bong stumbled upon an import version of a French graphic novel from the seventies in a Seoul book store: La Transperceneige. Or: Snowpiercer. Its 40-million-dollar budget made it the most expensive South Korean film of all time. The icy science-fiction drama was shot in the Czech Republic and features a train where class society is literally divided into first and second class – and where the rabble have to fight their way to the top. Snowpiercer became the focus of an intense struggle between Bong and Harvey Weinstein (yes, that Harvey Weinstein). Nicknamed ‘Scissorhands’ for his tendency to interfere in the editing room, Weinstein threatened to stop the international release unless Bong shortened the film by 30 minutes. The filmmaker stood his ground – and won.

As a Netflix Original, Okja probably boasts the most views of all Bong Joon Ho films. While film freaks today are used to enjoying exclusive showings of films by Martin Scorcese or Noah Baumbach on the streaming service, Bong was one of the first prestigious filmmakers to be featured. Okja helped Bong to his first nomination for a Palme d’Or in Cannes. It tells the story of a brave girl who tries to prevent her remarkable pet – an enormous pig the size of an army tank – from getting slaughtered. Equally bizarre as entertaining, while also delivering a compelling argument for vegetarianism.

Parasite enjoyed its premiere in Cannes as well, and was rewarded with an eight-minute standing ovation. It was the first South Korean film to win a Palme d’Or, after which the film won a slew of other international awards. IFFR will screen a never-before-seen, sleek black-and-white version of the film. “In my opinion, the characters look even more pathetic, while the grey tones add tragedy to the differences between the three rooms of the families”, says Bong. “But above all, I am curious about the response of the Rotterdam audience.” 

written by Anton Damen

Photo in header: Bong Joon Ho © Jan de Groen