Bong Joon Ho’s path from Seoul to Oscar dominance

Choe Sang-Hun, The New York Times

Posted at Feb 14 2020 11:11 AM

Bong Joon Ho’s path from Seoul to Oscar dominance 1
Bong Joon Ho receives the award for best international feature film for "Parasite" at the Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, Feb. 9, 2020. Once vilified as “anti-American” and “left wing” by critics in South Korea, he has been releasing one blockbuster after another tackling serious social issues through dark comedy. Noel West/The New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — Eom Hang-ki’s pizza parlor in the run-down Noryangjin district of Seoul has attracted unusual customers in recent months: movie fans from Japan and even the United States and Argentina, all coming to pay homage at one of the locations where Bong Joon Ho shot “Parasite.”

“I am so happy that my shop played even a tiny role in the creation of the historic movie,” Eom, 65​, said of the film that has become a worldwide sensation and this week became the first foreign language movie to win the best picture Oscar. “But frankly, I was confused at first when foreigners began showing up at my shop.”

The streets of Seoul are as much a character in “Parasite” as the actors themselves, and they played a formative role in shaping Bong’s politicized worldview and intense focus on the searing inequality in the pulsing city of 10 million people.

Bong’s relatives have told the South Korean news media that he showed a keen attention to wealth disparities from an early age, bringing poorer friends from school home to dine with him. When he was at Yonsei University in Seoul, students championed the rights of the poor and underprivileged, often going to rural villages as volunteer farmers and teachers during summer vacations or infiltrating work sites to help organize unions.

Bong moved to Seoul with his family from the provincial city of Daegu when he was a third grader. His maternal grandfather was Park Tae-won, a novelist who ended up in North Korea during the Korean War in the early 1950s and built a prolific literary career there​ until his death in 1986​.

During the Cold War, studying Park and other “gone-to-the-North” writers was taboo in the South. People were banned from borrowing his book from libraries, and when parts of his works were cited in books and journals, his name was often partly redacted.

​Growing up in Seoul, Bong as a middle school student was​ determined to become a film director. While studying sociology at Yonsei University in Seoul, he co-founded a filmmaking club.

He also ​developed what he called a “morbid obsession” ​with movies, watching old Hollywood classics ​broadcast every weekend on South Korean TV stations as well as more sexually explicit and violent films shown on AFKN, a TV channel for U.S. troops in South Korea. He bought his first video camera with savings from selling doughnuts at a school cafeteria.

“I still remember sleeping at night hugging the Hitachi camera,” he said.

When Bong enrolled at Yonsei in 1988, the campus was a hotbed of activism over the killing of a student the previous year, and there were protests nearly every day against the brutal military dictatorship. When demonstrators tried to march to the border with North Korea to call for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, riot police moved in with tear gas.

Protests at Yonsei set off huge protests in downtown Seoul that eventually forced the military strongman, Chun Doo-hwan, to allow a direct presidential election.

Bong said he was not an activist himself, other than drawing cartoons for the campus newspaper that often championed the protesters’ cause.

But “​it’s clear that his worldview shaped during his college days,” which “made him sensitive to social issues,” said Tcha Sung-jai, who was a producer for Bong’s first two movies and who now teaches filmmaking at Dongguk University in Seoul.

As South Korea began democratizing in the 1990s, phasing out state censorship of movies and books, a new generation of film directors and producers​ like Bong and Tcha — who had lived through the turmoil of the 1980s as students — ​spawned a renaissance in the ​South Korean ​movie industry at the beginning of the new millennium.

Replacing the old guard, whose works leaned toward politically correct melodrama, these younger directors and producers made movies dealing with once-taboo subjects: North-South Korean reconciliation, the torture of student activists, a crooked justice system and a massacre of pro-democracy protesters.

Some of these films were megahits, eclipsing Hollywood imports that had for so long dominated local theaters that the government forced them to dedicate some screening time to locally produced movies.

Bong struggled at the beginning. To make a living, he shot wedding videos. His first full-length movie, “Barking Dogs Never Bite” (2000), sold only 100,000 tickets.

“Did they really agree to make this film?” Bong later recalled his skeptical wife asking him after reading the script.

His second film, “Memories of Murder” (2003), based on a real-life serial murder case, gave Bong his first box office hit​. Bong soon became a household name in South Korea, directing several other critically acclaimed ​blockbusters.

His movies dealt with issues like police incompetence, the danger of genetic engineering and the theme that would bring him worldwide renown: the class strife tearing at South Korean society. And he seasoned these weighty issues with black comedy.

The recipe proved hugely popular.

Bong wove suspenseful tales involving people whom South Koreans could easily recognize: cynical local cops and ordinary people swept up in ​impossible situations while the state offered little help. In “Memories of Murder,” a serial killer terrorizes a ​rural town while local police are mobilized to Seoul to fight anti-government demonstrators, as they were in real life in the 1980s and 1990s.

“His movies deal with serious social issues, but they entertain viewers through humor and unpredictable storylines,” said Kim Hyung-koo, who was director of photography for two of Bong’s biggest hits.

But as movies about thinly veiled social and political issues became megahits, conservative politicians grew wary of “left-wing” ​celebrity film directors like Bong, whom they accused of creating “political propaganda.”

The governments of two past conservative presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, secretly blacklisted thousands of artists, writers and film directors for their left-leaning ideologies. They denied them government subsidies and kept them and their work off television, singling out Bong’s “Memories of Murder” and his 2006 movie, “The Host.” They accused him of highlighting “government incompetence” and spreading “anti-American” and “left-wing messages.”

In “The Host,” a toxic chemical released from a U.S. military base in Seoul — an actual incident that occurred in Seoul in 2000 — creates a mutated monster that rises from Seoul’s Han River and massacres innocent citizens. An ordinary family fights the monster while the government provides little help. “The ​Host” sold 13 million tickets, breaking the record of South Korea’s top-grossing film at the time.

Even after “Parasite​”​ won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May, a first for a South Korean movie, many conservative politicians sneered at Bong, calling his latest film a “commie flick” not worth watching.

But the Oscars changed all that.

​Conservative candidates in Daegu, Bong’s onetime hometown, have proposed building a museum and a statue and renaming streets in honor of Bong.

“‘Parasite’ has written new history,” said Park Yong-chan, a spokesman of the main conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party. “This is a monumental achievement that spread the power of South Korean movies and culture around the world.”