When Jane Fonda uttered those now famous words, “And the Oscar goes to…Parasite”, it represented the beginning of the next stage in the career of South Korean auteur, Bong Joon-ho. In addition to being the first film not in the English language to win the coveted Best Picture prize, Parasite did wonders to further expose Bong to a wider audience.
Not for the lack of trying in the past though, with 2017’s Okja and 2014’s Snowpiercer making waves on Netflix thanks to their star-studded English-speaking casts and large-scale ambition. But most of all, those films helped familiarize Bong’s unique filmmaking style with worldwide audiences. A common theme with the previously mentioned films and the rest of Bong’s work is a focus on genre shifts interlaced with wickedly dark comedy.
Bong has always had a morbid sense of humor in his films, being able to pull off moments of comedy in even the most dire situations and with Parasite’s historic win now in the books, it feels like the perfect opportunity to seek out his earlier work before even Snowpiercer. Most American audiences might not know just how far back Bong’s career goes, having made feature films since the early 2000s, starting with his dark dog comedy, Barking Dogs Never Bite.
Bong Joon-ho had an affinity for dark comedy even back then, transferring over to his now acclaimed South Korean historical crime drama, Memories of Murder. Even with a story involving the terrible case of the Hwaseong murders in the 80s and early 90s, Bong makes sure to insert his brand of dark humor, often as a way to emphasize the bizarre and sometimes absurd nature of his characters in their environments. His humor is hardly “accidental” in that sense.
Bot nowhere does Bong mix comedy and direness better than with his international breakout hit, The Host, back in 2006. No, I’m not referring to the Stephanie Meyer adaptation. Instead of futuristic love stories, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is a wildly entertaining monster thriller about a mysterious monster infesting the waters of the Han River in South Korea and soon emerging from the river to attack people on the surface, doubling as a sharp critique of the American and South Korean governments.
Though Memories of Murder and Barking Dogs Never Bite led to a surge of popularity for Bong Joon-ho in his native country, The Host is what first garnered him international popularity, playing at several prominent film festivals across the world and earning famed auteur Quentin Tarantino’s seal of approval with a placement on his Top 20 favorite films since he became a director (which gives Bong’s shout-out to Quentin at the Oscars more context).
Looking back, it’s easy to see how The Host broke out in both South Korea and the rest of the world. His first two films were smaller and more serious drama-comedies (again, however, Bong’s dark humor still shone through), but his monster horror film combined biting social and political commentary with blockbuster levels of action and horror to balance the themes of government corruption and incompetence. Even with something to say, Bong always has fun delivering his messages.
This is especially prominent in the film’s tone, combining disaster horror with family drama and dark comedy to tell a compelling father-daughter story at its center. This father-daughter story focuses on Park Gang-du, a caring, but lazy food vendor who is forced to take the burden of parental responsibility to a new level when the aforementioned monster kidnaps his daughter, Hyun-seo, as the city soon comes under siege from the chaos.
Bong still isn’t afraid to throw in his own pointed critiques of government corruption, making America, in particular, look heartless and villainous thanks to their involvement in helping create the monster with their careless chemical spillage in the Han River. Bong himself has stated that the inspiration for the film’s story came after a news story broke about deformed fish being found in the Han River, reportedly even with an S-shaped spine (ouch).
In that sense, it only feels appropriate to think of the original Godzilla, also being a story of a dangerous creature being born thanks to human and American interference. Godzilla was created as a response to the fears of nuclear warfare, specifically the situation involving the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the film’s various scenes of human suffering are in no way subtle in depicting that fear.
While the context for The Host differs in some ways, the fears of environmental interference and American powers overreaching moral boundaries still sticks with the film, even going as far as to portray the American government as the true main villain responsible for the hostile creature acting out in the only way it knows how. Much like Godzilla, there’s an emphasis on community suffering and this makes the main story between Gang-du and Hyun-seo feel significant in the scope of the film’s themes.
Letting the human characters in The Host take precedence over the creature itself is vital to showcasing the power of community in the film. With the American government acting on their own accord and the South Korean government being portrayed as incompetent and spineless, Gang-du and the rest of the supporting cast are left to combat the situation and get around government obstacles just to confront the creature that was born from their own doing.
The willingness to portray authoritative and powerful figures in such a negative light has become one of Bong Joon-ho’s signature aspects in his films, both Korean and American. Memories of Murder highlights the frantic response to the infamous serial murders in the 1980s, Snowpiercer examines the absurdity of the class system that forms from practically any type of group dynamics, Okja takes a hard stab at the immoral nature of the meat industry and its exploitation of rural labor, and Parasite examines the blurred lines between classes and the people’s dependence on each other – for better and for worse.
But as far as social commentary is concerned, The Host feels like Bong Joon-ho at his angriest, taking shots at the American and South Korean governments with clear malice and purpose. In no way does Bong fence-sit here, making his disdain for political corruption clear and mixing the “fun” horror of the film with the very real horrors of political interference potentially being the death of thousands and even millions of people who have little to no say on manners like this.
When death occurs in the film (and it occurs frequently), it’s hard to feel true remorse for the creature, again pointing back to the OG Godzilla. A creature that is perhaps acting out of fear is not shown to have much control over their actions and existence, so every death feels like one caused by the government over the creature itself. In essence, their fuckup feels like the most responsible party, even when the final conflict inevitably shifts towards the creature. Because that’s how it always should be, at least in the eyes of those refusing to take blame for why it even occurred in the first place.
But don’t let these thoughts on negative government influence rain on your parade. Despite the grim context behind the film, The Host still manages to contain that Bong charm that has won over so many people over the years. There’s much to marvel at, from the impressive visual effects, both practical and CGI, to the film’s various twists and turns that keep the story engaging. The Host is always a wild ride, regardless of how many times you may watch it, and it serves as an early precursor for Bong Joon-ho tackling similar themes in grand blockbuster settings that he would return to with his English-language films.
Over the years, The Host has garnered even more popularity thanks to Bong’s post-Host success, directing the two English-language films mentioned, the 2009 crime drama, Mother, and of course the blistering success story that is Parasite. With the latter’s success at both the box office and the Oscars, I can’t help but feel hopeful that audiences who loved the film will open themselves up to Bong’s older work. If you loved Parasite but haven’t seen much of his other work, just know that the Oscar-winning film is only the tip of the iceberg that is Bong Joon-ho’s incredible filmography.