Making History at the Oscars: The Evolution of Bong Joon Ho
Bong Joon Ho on the sets of <i>Parasite.</i>
Bong Joon Ho on the sets of Parasite.(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Making History at the Oscars: The Evolution of Bong Joon Ho

In 2006, Bong Joon Ho made a monster film called The Host but unlike the typical Hollywood “monster genre” where you see tough cops, brainy professors or superheroes tackle the big dinosaurs and godzillas, Bong pitted three generations of a dysfunctional Korean family against an amphibious creature. And the film went on to become one of the biggest hits ever in Korean cinema. Now, that’s the kind of twist one has come to expect in a Bong Joon Ho film. Even in one of finest films, Memories of Murder (2003), the funny elements stand out in what’s a dark thriller around a serial killer.

And it’s exactly this tonality in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite that makes this Oscar winning film about class divide so relatable and effective. 50-year-old Bong has made history at the Academy Awards with Parasite, the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. The Korean film also picked up 3 other big Oscar trophies for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best International Feature Film.

While receiving the Best Picture award, Miky Lee, the South Korean movie mogul described Bong as someone she really likes “because of his sense of humour and that he makes fun of himself and never takes himself seriously”.

Born in South Korea, Bong graduated from the Korean Academy of Film Arts in the 90s and his first film was Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), but he hit big time with this second one - Memories of a Murder. The filmmaker has spoken about Martin Scorsese as an early influence on him, and he paid his tribute to the master during his Oscar acceptance speech, while remembering Scorsese’s observation that “the most personal is the most creative”.


Back in 2013, Quentin Tarantino in an interview put Bong right up there with Steven Spielberg. "Of all the filmmakers out there in the last 20 years, he has something that Spielberg has. There is this level of entertainment and comedy in his films. The Host and Memories of Murder are both masterpieces … great in their own way," said the maker of Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. Seven years later Tarantino found himself pitted against Bong at the Academy Awards for not just Best Director but also Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

Earlier in 2019, Bong became the first Korean director to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Parasite. But it was in 2017 that Bong Joon Ho got initially booed and then was honoured with a 4 minute standing ovation at Cannes for his film Okja produced by Netflix. That’s because with Okja the filmmaker also found himself in the midst of a controversy about the distribution of the film - between streaming it on Netflix without a three week holdback and releasing it in theatres. At the time, Bong was sympathetic to both sides, ““I also understand and respect the decisions of local multiplexes. The cinema chains want at least three weeks of holdback time and Netflix will follow its principle of screening its original content concurrently on its platform and at theatres. I can’t take that priority right from Netflix subscribers who pay fees to watch the original content including Okja,” he said.

Another one of Bong Joon Ho’s most acclaimed films is his 2009 release Mother, which competed in the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival. This critically acclaimed thriller was described as “Hitchcockian” by many. Talking about the evolution of his films over the years Bong claims that he never attempts to make his films for an international audience. “When I’m shooting a film, I never think, “I wonder how this will be received by international audiences,” or anything like that. I think the characters, the storylines, and the situations I present are very Korean. Memories of Murder was about a Korean serial killer. The Host takes place near and around the Han River with scenarios that Korean families commonly face. This is the same case with Mother. I’ve never made a film hoping that I would receive international acclaim,” says the filmmaker

Bong Joon Ho’s best act though seems to have been reserved for Harvey Weinstein, one of the producers on his 2013 film Snowpiercer. In an interview to Vulture, Bong recounted that Weinstein wanted a particular scene involving a fish to be cut out of the film. Now, this scene was a favourite with Bong so he told Weinstein that the shot meant something deeply personal for him because his father was a fisherman, after which Weinstein gave in and let Bong keep the scene. “It was a fucking lie. My father was not a fisherman,” recalled Bong while talking about the encounter. Well, now you know Bong definitely deserved all those Oscars and more.

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