Cinema and Media Studies Bong Joon Ho
by
Nam Lee
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0371

Introduction

Born on 14 September 1969, Bong Joon Ho knew from early age that he wanted to become a film director, fostered by a deep-seated love of cinema that began in childhood. He was an avid film watcher even as a child, and French director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film The Wages of Fear (1953), which he watched on TV as an elementary school student, left a lasting impression on him. Bong’s formative experiences with art were largely influenced by his father, a professor of graphic design. He would spend countless hours in his father’s study, engrossed in the pages of foreign design books. Moreover, Bong nurtured a deep love for comics from an early age, often sketching his own stories. While in college, Bong contributed as a political cartoonist for the school newspaper, publishing a series of editorial cartoons. There was a time when he pondered becoming a professional cartoonist. Bong’s artistic talent extended from both his parents. His mother was the second daughter of Park Tae-won, a leading figure in modern Korean literature during the Japanese colonial period (1910–1945). Bong’s own artistic leanings, though, were deeply rooted in visual media such as films, manga, and cartoons. He is well known for his meticulous attention to details, particularly evident in his practice of drawing storyboards for every shot of his films before shooting. Despite majoring in sociology at Yonsei University, he was more actively engaged in the film club “Yellow Door” (Noranmoon), which he himself founded. The platform enabled him to both study and analyze films as well as to make short films. Bong’s directorial journey began with his short film White Man (Paeksaegin), in 1993, which he submitted as part of his application to the Korean Academy of Film Arts. His thesis film Incoherence (1994) attracted significant attention from the Korean film community, paving the way for collaboration with Tcha Sung-jai, one of the most influential producers of the emerging New Korean Cinema, who would eventually produce his first and second feature films. After working as a screenwriter and assistant director for a few projects, Bong made his directorial debut with Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000. The film, however, did not receive the critical or commercial success he had hoped for. It was his second feature, Memories of Murder (2003), that propelled him into the limelight, earning high critical acclaim and box office success, and establishing him as one of the most promising young directors of his time. His next film, a big-budget monster movie, The Host (2006), shattered the domestic box office records and also marked his international breakthrough, affirming his role as a leading figure of the rising Korean cinema on a global stage. His reputation as one of the most distinctive genre filmmakers flourished with the release of Mother (2009), and his international blockbusters, Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017). However, it was his film Parasite (2019) that truly secured his place in film history. The film not only received the prestigious Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but also became the first non-English-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar at the 2020 Academy Awards. Parasite also won Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Award. It was the first film since the American film Marty (dir. Delbert Mann, 1955) to receive both the Palm d’Or and the Best Picture Oscar.

General Overviews

Bong Joon Ho has commanded significant attention as one of the most discussed and studied Korean filmmakers, particularly following the success of his global project, Snowpiercer. Several works discuss his overall career and distinctive film style, but comprehensive, book-length studies are noticeably scant. For an initial exploration of Bong’s career and his cinematic approach, Jung 2011 and Lee 2020 serve as ideal starting points. Lee’s book offers a more comprehensive look, inclusive of an analysis of Bong’s most recent film, Parasite. Rayns 2020, albeit concise, is densely packed with anecdotes illuminating Bong’s career and films. Sohn 2021 offers a much-needed feminist reading of his films, while Schulze 2019 and Sellar 2015 discuss Bong’s filmic world within the context of Korean blockbuster filmmaking and 1980s minjung politics, respectively. Lee and Stringer 2018 offers a rare glimpse into the sound design process of Bong’s blockbuster films. Han 2022 is a coffee table book showing a myriad of film stills while discussing the background of Bong’s oeuvre and his creative influences.

  • Han, Karen. Bong Joon Ho: Dissident Cinema. New York: Abrams, 2022.

    Illustrated and designed by the London-based film magazine Little White Lies, this coffee table book by culture writer and screenwriter Karen Han examines Bong’s oeuvre, analyzing each film and providing insights into the background and creative inspirations behind them. Interviews with Bong’s key collaborators furnish fresh perspectives on his filmmaking process.

  • Jung, Ji-youn. “On the Director Part 1: Mourning and Anamnesis.” In Korean Film Directors: Bong Joon-ho. By Jung Ji-youn, 13–40. Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2011.

    Film critic Jung Ji-young provides an overview of Bong’s early career, tracing his journey from his thesis film at the Korean Film Academy, Incoherence (1994), to his third feature, The Host (2006). Notably, her introduction and the analysis of Incoherence illuminate the consistent style and themes that Bong has maintained throughout his filmmaking career.

  • Kim, Suhyun. “(In)Commensurability of Korean Cinema: International Coproduction of Korean Films in the 2010s.” Korea Journal 59.4 (2019): 136–166.

    DOI: 10.25024/kj.2019.59.4.136

    Argues for the commensurability of South Korean cinema within an increasingly globalized, neo-capitalist landscape, focusing on an analysis of Bong’s later works: Snowpiercer, Okja, and Parasite. By situating these films within the context of the South Korean film industry’s burgeoning effort in international co-productions in the 2010s, the article assesses how Bong’s films transcend national boundaries, adeptly resonating with and navigating global audiences.

  • Lee, Nam. The Films of Bong Joon Ho. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.36019/9781978818941

    The only scholarly monograph in English language on Bong and his works. Explores the ways in which Bong Joon Ho’s films echo C. Wright Mill’s concept of “sociological imagination”—encompassing the understanding of the private tribulations in the context of broader social realities. Through detailed analyses spanning Bong’s early shorts to his acclaimed Parasite, Lee underscores the films’ insights into the intricacies of South Korea’s sociopolitical system, moral corruption, and prevalent social injustices, all viewed through the lens of the socially weak. Includes an exhaustive filmography.

  • Lee, Nikki J. Y., and Julian Stringer. “From Screenwriting for Sound to Film Sound Maps: The Evolution of Live Tone’s Creative Alliance with Bong Joon-ho.” The New Soundtrack 8.2 (2018): 145–159.

    DOI: 10.3366/sound.2018.0127

    Examines the creative collaboration between Bong Joon Ho and Live Tone, South Korea’s leading audio post-production studio. Elucidates how involving sound designers from early stage fosters innovative approaches to sound. Special emphasis is placed on the intricate sound design of blockbuster projects like Snowpiercer and Okja. Offers a rare glimpse into sound design in Bong’s films. (c.f. Lee, Nikki J. Y., and Julian Stringer. “Snowpiercer: Sound Designable Voices and the South Korean Global Film.” In Locating the Voice in Film: Critical Approaches. Edited by Tom Whittaker and Sarah Wright, 263–278. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

  • Rayns, Tony. “Class Act.” In Special Issue: Bong Joon Ho Takes Over. Edited by Bong Joon Ho. Sight & Sound 30.3 (2020): 26–31.

    In this special issue of the magazine, guest edited by Bong Joon Ho, renowned film critic and Asian cinema specialist Tony Rayns provides a succinct overview of Bong’s life and filmography. Attributing Bong’s remarkable success to his Hitchcockian prowess, Rayns delves into Bong’s personal inspirations, highlighting Barking Dogs Never Bite as his most introspective work. Also contextualizes Bong’s films within Korea’s social and political landscape, especially the significant events of the 1980s that have informed his filmmaking.

  • Schulze, Joshua. “The Sacred Engine to the Rice Paddy: Globalization, Genre, and Local Space in the Films of Bong Joon-ho.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 47.1 (2019): 21–29.

    DOI: 10.1080/01956051.2019.1563449

    Situates Bong’s genre filmmaking within the New Korean Cinema’s successful forays into blockbuster filmmaking. While Schulze uses the term “New Wave” to describe this new cinema, it more accurately refers to the emergence of a new socially conscious cinema in the late 1980s. Film analysis centers on Memories of Murder, The Host, and Snowpiercer, emphasizing their synthesis of Hollywood genre conventions—with their primary influence rooted therein—and local narratives based on distinct national issues and events.

  • Sellar, Gord. “The Cinematic Politics of Bong Joon-ho.” Arena Magazine 134 (2015): 46–49.

    Canadian writer Gord Sellar introduces the intriguing concept of “the politics of a ghost-haunted world” (p. 46) as central to understanding Bong’s filmic world. He interprets four of Bong’s works—Memories of Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer, and Haemoo (which Bong produced)—as metaphors for traumatic events in contemporary Korean history, such as the Kwangju massacre and the “IMF crisis.” Special attention is placed on how Bong’s filmmaking is informed by the notion of minjung and its politics of the 1980s.

  • Sohn, Hee-jeong. “Gender in ‘Korean Reality’: Bong Joon-ho’s Films and the Birth of ‘Snob Film.’” Translated by Jung Yijung. Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture 14 (2021): 289–310.

    DOI: 10.1353/aza.2021.0017

    English translation of Korean feminist film scholar Sohn Hee-jeong’s critique of Bong’s films from Memories of Murder (2003) to Parasite (2019). Sohn charts Bong’s trajectory as an “allegory auteur,” transitioning from national allegories to new forms of political allegory, notably starting with Snowpiercer. She scrutinizes the gender representation in his films, contending that within both types of allegory, women and mothers are subtly abstracted from their historical contexts. She dubs Bong’s political allegory films as “snob films.”

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