Since the start of the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2015, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has struggled to maintain an appearance of diversity and inclusivity. April Reign, creator of the viral hashtag, pointed out how—five years on—the Academy not only continues to snub minority industry professionals, but also boasts a predominantly white, male membership. South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho made headlines this year for taking home four Oscars for his 2019 film Parasite, but the entire actor categories (male, female, best, and supporting) were one Cynthia Erivo away of being completely white. Bong’s Best Picture win proved there is a place in the Academy Awards for non-English speaking, non-Western filmmakers outside of the Best Foreign Film category. Perhaps it was a mix of the years-long pressure with the recognition that film talent can exist outside of the US or the UK, but the Academy recently announced new standards productions will have to meet to be considered for Best Picture in the future. Regardless of the exact reasoning, it takes virtuosos like Bong Joon-Ho to leave their mark in an industry so dominated by Hollywood.
Bong is a writer and director whose Korean-produced movies have garnered international attention and made numerous firsts in the film industry. His movies typically deal with social themes and the use of black humor, and he also favors a dramatic, sudden shift between tones that has become his trademark. Bong cites the Martin Scorsese quote, “The most personal is the most creative,” as a major source of inspiration in his filmmaking.
Bong wrote and directed this story of a monster in the Han River that terrifies a family. It was partly inspired by an event several years before where a man reported that the US military ordered him to dump formaldehyde into the Han River. Despite the commentary on the US military presence in South Korea, Bong denies the movie as anti-American because it also pokes fun at other groups, from the Korean government to protesters.
The Host was highly anticipated after Bong’s successful sophomore movie Memories of Murder, and became the highest-grossing Korean film when it released in 2006. It was the widest theatrical release for South Korea at the time, making its way into theaters in the US and across the globe.
Bong’s first English-language movie was based on the 1982 French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, that he found (and read in one sitting) at a comic book store. He directed and co-wrote the 2013 film that follows a moving train circling an ice-covered Earth. The protagonists at the back of the train live in squalor and suppression, and begin to fight their way to the elite at the front. It tackles themes of class warfare and social injustice.
Although big Western stars were cast (Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, and Ed Harris, to name a few), the film is still considered a Korean production. Rotten Tomatoes has given Snowpiercer a rating of 94%, and its critical success inspired the eponymous TV version which Bong also assisted in creating.
In this film again directed and co-written by Bong, a team of scientists have doled out genetically modified super pigs around the world to find out what circumstances make for the tastiest pork. Okja is one of these super pigs, raised by a little girl and her family in rural South Korea. The movie is a sharp critique of the meat industry that also examines the tender relationships humans can foster with animals.
When Okja premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, it was met with controversy for being produced by Netflix (and thus not having a “real” theatrical release). However, it received a four-minute standing ovation following the showing.
Bong’s growing list of successful films made him bound to receive Hollywood recognition one day. With his latest movie, it came in a landslide. Parasite was the first foreign language film to win a Best Picture Oscar, the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (where it premiered), and the first Korean film to be nominated—then win—a Golden Globe. In addition to Best Picture it received the Oscar for Achievement in Directing, International Feature, and Original Screenplay, along with two other nominations. It holds a 96 rating on Metacritic and 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and is the highest-grossing South Korean film ever.
Bong created and directed the movie about a poor family that insidiously benefits from a wealthier one by all getting hired on as staff. He considers it an expression of the fear and anxiety he once had from not being able to live a comfortable life, and tutoring a rich family. He says, “I got this feeling that I was infiltrating the private lives of complete strangers. Every week I would go into their house, and I thought how fun it would be if I could get all my friends to infiltrate the house one by one.” Parasite deals with themes of class conflict, wealth disparity, and some argue colonialism.