feature photo courtesy of @vanityfair
How Bong Joon Ho’s success has opened our eyes to the word of culture we have excluded for too long.
So much of our global cinematic history traces its lineage back to Hollywood, with many world-famous movies and actors emerging from the American west. While the Oscars is one of the most recognized award ceremonies in the film industry, it only has one category dedicated to featuring non-American films, titled “Best Foreign Language Film Award” -- that is, until this year, when it was changed to “Best International Feature Film”. Essentially, out of the thousands of films released across the world each year, only five are eligible for the esteemed spotlight an Oscar affords.
OUT OF THE THOUSANDS OF FILMS RELEASED ACROSS THE WORLD EACH YEAR, ONLY FIVE ARE ELIGIBLE FOR THE ESTEEMED SPOTLIGHT AN OSCAR AFFORDS.
Director Bong Joon Ho’s win under the new title of “Best International Feature Film” as well as his sweep over the Oscars - winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay - represent an important turning point in history. Bong Joon Ho’s winning film, Parasite, is in Korean and was the first non-English film to win in the 92-year history of the Oscars, marking a long needed transition out of a purely Anglophone cultural landscape.
Bong Joon Ho grew up in South Korea under a dictatorial government. Thus, when he entered college, everyone around him was politically active and spent their days protesting the government as South Korea underwent its transformation into a democracy. Meanwhile, Bong stayed out of politics and became invested in watching films, even starting his own movie club called the Yellow Door. However, it was through film that Bong would too become an activist.
At the end of World War II, the United States played a key role in the division between North and South Korea. The growth of South Korea into the country it is today was therefore very much influenced by American ideals and practices. Hollywood films infiltrated Korean theaters, nearly causing the Korean film industry to collapse and resulting in anti-American sentiments. Bong’s taste was shaped by these sentiments, as he studied and became intrigued by Asian films. Meanwhile, through his filmmaking, which refuses to conform to any conventional genre archetypes, Bong Joon Ho actively counters the standards that Hollywood has tried to make universal.
Bong said, "I've watched a lot of American genre films, and enjoyed them greatly. At the same time, I feel that the conventions have been repeated to the point where they get extremely tired.” His own works are above such critique; there is no predictability in Bong’s films - each is full of humor, horror, suspense, dread, and numerous plot twists. For example, in both Parasite and Snowpiercer, there is no clear division between characters other than their economic statuses. While the conventional film plotline follows a heroic underdog, who overtakes a wealthier, powerful villain, Bong makes sure that all characters are equally flawed and understood so that no one is rooting for anyone in particular. Even in the midst of murder and evil, Bong still manages to inject humor as viewers find themselves laughing at the exaggerated expressions of actors and the awkward tension between characters.
While Bong’s films don’t fall under a certain category, they incorporate strong universal messages. Referring to his most famous films, Bong says, “Okja, Snowpiercer, Parasite, they're all stories about capitalism. Before it’s a massive, sociological term, capitalism is just our lives.” Capitalism in all forms - not just monetary, but in terms of social, cultural, political capital - shapes our lives and creates inevitable, perpetual class differences. By depicting the underdog’s attempts to ascend the social ladder by any means, but ultimately remaining unsuccessful, Bong depicts a reality that most films refuse to admit to us. Whether it’s the psychological manipulation felt through the struggle between a rich family and their help or the gore depicted in the brutal massacre between the last survivors on earth, Bong’s work is so blunt that it becomes uncomfortable and painful to witness. Viewers don’t watch Bong for pleasure or necessarily even entertainment. Bong’s work forces us to reflect on our choices and participation in systems greater than ourselves.
Bong is meticulous in the creation of his work: before filming and after writing his scripts, each scene is storyboarded, meaning he draws out his vision for every single scene. In fact, his storyboarded version of Parasite is being released in May of this year. While most directors like to film different angles and ultimately compose them together when editing the film, Bong only shoots what he envisions. Thus, there are so many little details and even inside jokes that could often be overlooked in Bong’s works. In Okja, for example, Bong’s movie about an American corporation who wants to take and kill a young South Korean girl’s animal, Bong positions the corporation’s leaders in the same way as the Obama administration as they waited to kill Osama Bin Laden, as captured in an infamous photograph. Even down to individual frames of his films, Bong is constantly making a statement. In this case, Bong is comparing the overpowered fictional corporation with the American government, as well as criticizing Western-centrism, with both of the killing groups being completely white and both of the targets being from the Eastern hemisphere.
By criticizing Hollywood and the arrogance that has led them to revere American films over any other, Bong has opened our eyes to a fresh new perspective. At the Golden Globes earlier this year, Bong said: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” However, although the barrier is only one-inch, it took the Academy 92 years to finally cross.
BONG’S OSCAR WINS SHOULD BE IMPORTANT TO THE WESTERN CULTURAL COMMUNITY - AS A WAKE UP CALL.
Bong’s sweep over the Oscar’s isn’t necessarily important to him, having said “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” He did, in fact, win the highest honor at one of the most recognized international film festivals: the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Instead, Bong’s Oscar wins should be important to the Western cultural community - as a wake up call.
Perhaps they’re motivated by the fear of hearing a language beyond English, or perhaps it is the comfort of being able to predict the ending of a film we’re watching. Nevertheless, Americans and English-speakers have excluded international films for too long and have thus narrowed their vision of the world, perpetuating a Western-centric ideology that greatly undervalues the great works of the world, that puts them culturally behind those who are able to appreciate a worldly perspective.
However, now that we have finally stepped into a realm beyond Hollywood, it is important that we do not just stop at Bong Joon Ho. We need to take advantage of our global connectivity and watch films from across the world. In fact, most of them are at our fingertips - on streaming platforms like Netflix and YouTube. So do your research and reach out of your comfort zone. Maybe even start with Bong Joon Ho’s list of his 20 favorite emerging directors.
Don’t get left behind again.