He broke barriers when his film, Parasite, was the first foreign language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but Bong Joon-ho’s excellent film repertoire dates back to the early 2000s, where he stepped into the Korean film industry and eventually brought his talents to the U.S. He has a true knack for portraying some of society’s most relevant issues while also changing the film industry and introducing Korean filmmaking to the world. Taking a look at Joon-ho’s masterclass of a filmography, so far, we will be breaking down his five best films in order.
With some of the films that made him a name in South Korea to his American films starring some of Hollywood’s best, Bong Joon-ho has proved that he can try his hand in several genres like sci-fi, murder mystery, and post-apocalyptic. Not only has he changed cinema in the entire Western Hemisphere, but he has become one of the most talked about directors in the U.S as well. Please enjoy this list of Bong Joon-ho’s five best films.
5 Okja (2017)
Starring one of South Korea’s best young stars, Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija, Okja is about a girl and her bond with a giant best friend, a super-pig on the verge of extinction. This adventure film explores society’s treatment of animals, especially livestock, and the lengths human beings are willing to go for the things they love. Joon-ho’s unique filmmaking flair starts with his writing. And like all of his films, he is always able to flawlessly craft an original story with just his imagination and the way he views the world. Okjais no different. Bobbing and weaving characters in and out of Mija and her gigantic friend Okja’s adventure, Joon-ho’s writing allows the film and its actors to dazzle on the screen. With stand out performances from Jake Gyllenhall, Tilda Swinton, and Paul Dano, everything comes together in this American/Korean film.
As you will see later in this list, like other great directors that are currently killing it in Hollywood, such as George Miller and Denis Villeneuve, Joon-ho is a master at portraying worlds on screen that are unlike our own. Okja takes place in an obscure version of Korea, where the existence of super-pigs is one of the most important social issues. The film’s delve into animal cruelty is not in your face. While the message is clear to his audience, Joon-ho let’s it play out subtlety, allowing us to form a connection with Mija and Okja’s relationship.
4 Memories of Murder (2003)
Memories of Murder, starring common Joon-ho collaborator Song Kang-ho, provides a completely different spin to both the murder mystery and crime genres of film. Joon-ho’s second feature film is about a frustrated detective who goes to almost ridiculous lengths to solve the murders of two women. His take on the genre showed American audiences that murder mysteries can be solved in any way possible, even when the mystery seems unsolvable. With a once overlooked and now praised performance from Parasitestar Song Kang-ho, Memories of Murder puts us right next to him and his not-so-sharp team as they go around drop kicking the neighborhood for some answers.
Memories of Murder is a bleak and vibrant film all at the same time. While the film is dark visually, the script is comical, unique, and hilarious. This film could rank with some of the crime genre’s best like Silence of the Lambsand Se7en.But it also puts up a good fight with buddy cop and crime comedies like Pineapple Express and The Other Guys. Even giving a social commentary on policing, Joon-ho hits all of the marks he intended to, but it would be much later until his films reached the masses of the U.S.
3 Snowpiercer (2013)
In 2013, Joon-ho adapted the French novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob into the American action-drama, starring the Avengers‘ Chris Evans,Snowpiercer. Set in the distant future after a climate experiment goes wrong, creating a global ice age, this film explores topics of both climate change and society’s class systems, specifically lower class individuals. The film is about the remaining survivors from the experiment, starting with the upper class at the front of a giant train protecting them from the weather, and the less fortunate lower class residing in the back. While the upper class dines five-star, the back of the train enjoys delicious servings of jelly “protein bars.” The film is about Evans’ character Curtis and his compadres’ rebellion through the train, which is guarded by armed militants.
Visually, Snowpiercer is colorful, even when experiencing the tragedies of the back of the train, but the action in the film is intense and ascertaining. What fan wouldn’t love to see Captain America step out of his role as America’s hero and into a new role as the hero of a train that is the sole population of the entire world. Joon-ho takes his vision, as he does so well, and creates a world that we wouldn’t like to imagine ourselves, but a world so realistic that we experience it ourselves.
2 Mother (2009)
Rounding out the last two films on our list, we’re back in South Korea. After showing the world his talents in the murder mystery genre with Memories of Murder, Joon-ho’s 2009 drama Motherinstead gives a look through a mother’s perspective and the things she will do to prove her son’s innocence in a murder that was solved a bit too fast. When the film’s star Kim Hye-ja, who is only referred to as Yoon Do-joon’s mother, finds her mentally challenged son, played by Won Bin, behind bars for the murder of a young girl, she goes on a journey that the police were not willing to partake in.
Also giving some insight into police matters in Korea, Mother features a strong female lead in Hye-ja, who is convincing and even breathtaking at times. Including even some more twists and turns than Memories of Murder, this film expand’s Joon-ho’s range in the genre specifically while simultaneously flexing his ability to go beyond his previous films. However, it would be his previous films that would lead up to undeniably Joon-ho’s best work so far in his 2019 tour de force coming in at number one.
1 Parasite (2019)
Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and the Palm d’Or at Cannes. The accolades alone are enough to put Parasite as number one on this list. But if they’re not convincing enough, the film has been celebrated worldwide as a masterclass in directing, writing, and theme. With the ensemble cast of some of South Korea’s best, like Memories of Murderstar Song Kang-ho, Parasite hits on every aspect of great filmmaking, while giving a Joon-ho-esque spin on class in society. Much more methodical than his first American film, Snowpiercer, his portrayal of class systems in the film’s three families is displayed with such nuance and originality.
While Joon-ho’s filmography is not to be argued with, it was his latest film Parasite that shifted him into a household name in cinema. It was this film that made audiences go back into his catalog and truly understand his talent as a filmmaker. It’s only right to put Parasiteat the top of the list. It’s the first film that came to America and encouraged casual movie-viewers to explore new cultures and languages. Like he said during his Oscar acceptance speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” and Parasiteis nothing short of amazing.
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