When Parasite swept the Academy Awards, it cemented writer/director Bong Joon-ho in film history. But Bong’s career has also been one of the most interesting of the 21st century, as the filmmaker gained immense popularity in Korea before crossing over to Western success. His entire filmography shows his willingness to experiment in more genres than most directors tackle in their entire careers. Bong Joon-ho’s success and his tendency to work with international producers has given him a greater international audience than most Korean directors. He has attracted a loyal following in both Korea and abroad, becoming an auteur director with growing name recognition.
There is an excitement in evaluating a filmography without any true failures. Forget choosing one as his best—his films are so meticulously crafted that most could be argued as being some of the best Korean films of all time. But as Korean media continues to experience intense international success, it’s worth looking at Bong’s unique filmography: From monster movies to crime dramas, with a dash of horror and comedy in each one, his films are defined by their influences from both Korean and Western cinema. Bong’s detailed directorial style translates to both intense action and family drama, giving all of his films a remarkable sense of tension and escalation. He cycles back to the same themes often (the effect of capitalism on individuals, the lurking evil that remains unseen in everyone) but each time he incorporates a new perspective. Every film adds something new to his filmography, remaining distinct but undeniably by director Bong.
Here is our ranking of every Bong Joon-ho film:
Okja takes more creative risks in its first five minutes than most films take over their entire span, and it doesn’t let up from there. What appears to be a sticking point for some critics and audiences, particularly Western ones, is the seemingly erratic tone, from sentiment to suspense to giddy action to whimsy to horror to whatever it is Jake Gyllenhaal is doing. But this is part and parcel with what makes Bong Joon-ho movies, well, Bong Joon-ho movies: They’re nuanced and complex, but they aren’t exactly subtle or restrained. They have attention to detail, but they are not delicate in their handling. They have multiple intentions, and they bring those intentions together to jam. They are imaginative works that craft momentum through part-counterpart alternations, and Okja is perhaps the finest example yet of the wild pendulum swing of a Bong film’s rhythmic tonality. Okja is also not a film about veganism, but it is a film that asks how we can find integrity and, above all, how we can act humanely towards other creatures, humans included. The answers Okja reaches are simple and vital, and without really speaking them it helps you hear those answers for yourself because it has asked all the right questions, and it has asked them in a way that is intensely engaging. —Chad Betz
6. Barking Dogs Never Bite
With his first feature film, Bong Joon-ho entered the Korean arthouse scene of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Barking Dogs Never Bite is an offbeat dark comedy that leans into the absurd horror of middle-class society. Set in an apartment building, Barking Dogs Never Bite follows aspiring professor Go Yoon-joo (Lee Sung-jae) who is being driven crazy by the incessant barking of a dog in the building. Seeking peace, and taking out his frustrations on his unfulfilling life, Go sets out to kill the dog, putting him in the path of the bored Park Hyun-nam (Bae Doona) who seeks to become famous to change her dull life. It is Bong Joon-ho’s most comedic film, and the dark subject matter matches perfectly with his sense of humor. Some of the themes that will emerge throughout Bong’s work are already apparent in Barking Dogs Never Bite, such as the futile nature of the middle class and the hidden evils that lurk in society and individuals. It’s also one of Bae Doona’s first films, and she gives a breakthrough performance that foreshadows her later success both in Korea and in her collaborations with the Wachowski sisters. While Bong has left its more indie style behind, Barking Dogs Never Bite remains an engaging film that shows the early promise of a blockbuster director.—Leila Jordan
Mother, director Bong’s fourth film, sustains his usual themes but skews much darker amid the slapstick. It’s driven by Kim Hye-ja’s performance as the film’s namesake, a seemingly meek and long-suffering figure whose devotion to her only child knows no bounds. Her character (also named Hye-ja) is an herbalist and unlicensed acupuncturist who has raised a mentally disabled son by herself. Do-joon (Bon Win) is an indulgent, infantile 27-year-old who is the village idiot in their provincial town, subjected to mockery and casual violence, yet also prone to drunken antics and misdemeanors. Hye-ja’s relationship with her boy exceeds the usual mother-son norms, creepily epitomized in a scene where she tilts a bowl of broth to her son’s lips as he stands urinating on a street corner. The smother-love goes into overdrive when Do-joon is jailed for the rape and murder of a local schoolgirl, whose body is found near a bar Do-joon had been kicked of the previous night. More so than Bong’s other films, Mother takes the audience’s sympathies and expectations to surprising places. You can easily question if the director’s caricatures of the town’s characters undermine his purpose, or decide that his melodramatic plot twists are too much to sensibly abide. There’s no intellectual rigor behind the curtain, as with, say, the Coen Brothers, probably the closest American analogue to Bong’s filmmaking style. The whole shebang rides on the whirlwind force of Kim’s performance, something no one else is likely to soon repeat. —Steve Dollar
4. The Host
Before he was breaking out internationally with a tight action film like Snowpiercer, and eventually winning a handful of Oscars for Parasite, this South Korean monster movie was Bong Joon-ho’s big work and calling card. Astoundingly successful at the box office in his home country, it straddles several genre lines between sci-fi, family drama and horror, but there’s plenty of scary stuff with the monster menacing little kids in particular. Props to the designers on one of the more unique movie monsters of the last few decades—the mutated creature in this film looks sort of like a giant tadpole with teeth and legs, which is way more awesome in practice than it sounds. The real heart of the film is a superb performance by Song Kang-ho (also in Snowpiercer and Parasite) as a seemingly slow-witted father trying to hold his family together during the disaster. That’s a pretty common role to be playing in a horror film, but the performances and family dynamic in general truly are the key factor that help elevate The Host far above most of its ilk.—Jim Vorel
“That’s so metaphorical,” exclaims the son of the Kim family, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), holding with childlike reverie a large rock sculpture, a wooden base solidifying its aesthetic and cultural value. The pointedly nice object stands apart from the basic keepsakes in the Kims’ fairly dingy and cramped home, inhabited by unemployed driver father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), unemployed mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and not-in-art-school daughter, Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Brought to them by Ki-woo’s wealthy friend, the rock is supposed to foretell great financial wealth to whatever family keeps it in their home. Irritated at their own situation, at the lack of space, at the lack of immediate value the rock has, Chung-sook mutters, “Could’ve brought us food.” In Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, those that live with a stark awareness of inequality operate with a sense of cognitive dissonance. It’s this paradox of thought that allows Ki-woo to be both naively worshipful towards what a rock sculpture could bring them, but also understand, at other times, that wandering around isn’t how one ascends into power. At the behest of said wealthy friend, he becomes the English tutor for the daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), of the grotesquely affluent Park family: astute patriarch (Lee Sun-kyun), dim matriarch (Cho Yeo-jeong), manic artsy son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), and severely loyal housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun). But as the Kim and Park families grow increasingly closer, both the differences and similarities between them blur beyond discernment. Bong’s interest in income inequality and class has spanned the majority of his career, examining the ways it impacts the justice system (Memories of Murder, Mother), the environment (Okja) and the institutions responsible for both the exacerbation of wealth inequality and failing to protect those most marginalized by that inequality (Snowpiercer, The Host). For Parasite, Bong takes a slightly different angle—he’s no less interested in inequality’s consequences, but here he sees how class as performance manifests, particularly when people are plucked from one echelon of society and put in another. As we watch both families act in different, but intersecting, pieces of social/anthropological theatre, Bong cuts through their mutual hunger, and what ultimately and tragically separates them, with a jaundiced eye and an acidic sense of humor. Laughing during Parasite feels like choking on rust. (Cho, especially, finds the perfect amount of absurdity as the somewhat doltish mother, truly a testament to rich ladies being easily knocked over by a feather.) But Bong is not interested in metaphor, and not the kind written on rocks. Even through its absurdist, bleakly satirical lens, Bong understands that social inequity is not just theatre, but lived experience. Sometimes the rock is just a shit-stained rock.—Kyle Turner
2. Memories of Murder
Bong Joon-ho’s second film is a triumph on every level. Based on the Hwaseong serial murders (called the first serial killing case in South Korea), Memories of Murder take the genre conventions of a detective drama and infuses them with Bong’s unique directorial eye and fine attention to detail. Following local detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and the younger Seoul detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) as they try to find the killer, the film highlights the changes in South Korean society as Bong reflects on the country’s troubled late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The pursuit of the killer exposes the corruption of the police department, but also the depravity that hides in many individuals. While inspired by many serial killer movies of the past, Memories of Murder often rises above them in its nuanced depiction of police brutality and the relationship between the detectives and the local community. The film asks if evil is something that is possible to uncover from a person’s appearance, or if it may always be hiding in plain daylight. The cinematography is some of the best of Bong Joon-ho’s career, examining the stark darkness of the investigation against the sprawling countryside of a slowly modernizing Korea. And for such dark subject matter, the film is not without bouts of trademark humor that give the characters texture amidst the darkness. Memories of Murder established Bong Joon-ho as one of the leading Korean directors, and remains one of his best films.—Leila Jordan
There is a sequence midway through Snowpiercer that perfectly articulates what makes Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho among the most dynamic filmmakers currently working. Two armies engage in a no-holds-barred, slow motion-heavy action set piece. Metal clashes against metal, and characters slash through their opponents as if their bodies were made of butter. It’s gory, imaginative, horrifying, beautiful, visceral and utterly glorious. Adapted from a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller set in a futuristic world: Nearly two decades prior, in an ill-advised attempt to halt global warming, the government inundated the atmosphere with an experimental chemical that left our planet a barren, ice-covered wasteland. Now, the last of humanity resides on “Snowpiercer,” a vast train powered via a perpetual-motion engine and governed by a ruthless caste system. Needless to say, this scenario hasn’t exactly brought out the best of humanity. Bong’s bleak and brutal film may very well be playing a song that we’ve all heard before, but he does it with such gusto and dexterous skill you can’t help but be caught up in the flurry. —Mark Rozeman