In a visit to South Korea in 2013, American director Quentin Tarantino compared local filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, who had released his fifth feature Snowpiercer earlier that year, to “Spielberg in his prime”. Not only was Bong making budget spectacles such as The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013), but he was also injecting them with loads of heart and grounding his outlandish themes through ordinary human beings being caught up in battles beyond their control. The South Korean auteur’s sixth film, Okja, will stream on Netflix on June 28.
Before he went on to deal with murder mysteries and gigantic monsters, Bong restricted himself to the absurdity of simple everyday happenings. An early 30-minute short showcased where his interests lay.
Bong directed Incoherence as his final project for the Korean Academy of Film Arts in 1994. The film is broken up into four vignettes, each of which comes together in an epilogue. The first three parts are variations on the same theme, of men in white-collar jobs trying to break the rules in their own way. The first part centres on a young professor, who spends his free time oggling at naked women from back issues of the American magazine Penthouse. During a class, he asks one of his female students to head to his office to retrieve a book, only to realise that there’s a magazine on his desk, and that his secret might be discovered.
In part two, another white collar employee gets thrills from stealing cartons of milk outside someone’s home during his morning jogs. On one such jaunt, he runs into a newspaper man, and gives him a carton of stolen milk and goes away, only for the house owner to come out and accuse the wrong person of the theft.
The third film, which is the most humourous of the lot, has a office worker in search of a toilet after a late-night drinking binge. The direction feels more assured. The film has understated visual humour and the central idea comes together perfectly.
The disparate threads are resolved in the film’s epilogue, at a panel discussion on television, where each of the three men decry the evils of South Korean society.
Incoherence, along with another short called Memory in the Frame, was screened at the Vancouver and Hong Kong film festivals. Both films resulted in the young director getting work as a screenwriter and assistant director in the South Korean film industry.
Much of the mood of Incoherence informs Bong’s debut Barking Dogs Never Bite, which came out six years later. The dark comedy, about an out-of-work professor who begins kidnapping dogs that annoy him, upended a common movie notion: filmmakers avoid being cruel to pets on the screen.
While Barking Dogs Never Bite was screened at a few international film festivals, it was only through 2003’s Memories of Murder that Bong was propelled to the front of the Korean New Wave. In 2006’s The Host, Joon-Ho took on the gigantic monster trope, using the device to examine the South Korean family and the influence of the American government on the country.
Bong’s trip to Hollywood hasn’t been without problems. For 2013’s Snowpiercer, he got into a vicious battle with film producer Harvey Weinstein over unwarranted cuts. His latest release Okja has been the subject of controversy at the Cannes Film Festival and South Korea because of producer Netflix’s simultaneous web and theatrical release strategy.
A South Korean director making global movies starring Hollywood stars wouldn’t have been possible in the early 2000s. Bong explained why his movies were successful with audiences in a recent interview: “My movies are based in genre, which is a universal language. Everybody speaks it.”