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The 92nd Academy Awards became an important moment in history when Parasite nabbed Best Picture and became the first foreign-language film to take home the accolade. But the win isn’t only about overcoming “the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles” its director so gracefully expressed during award season. It is a celebration and recognition of Bong Joon-ho’s incredible body of work across twenty years.
Bong Joon-ho is a unique voice of the art form of cinema who commands meaning to each of his films. They’re the kind of movies where you’ll remember exactly where you were sitting and who you were with when you first witnessed them. Their interwoven themes of capitalism and the class system are often jarring, oddly humorous and one of a kind. But which are his best? Now, the South Korean director hasn’t actually ever had his name on a badly-reviewed film, but let’s go through his work from worst to best. Here's how they stack up:
7. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
First up at No. 7 is Bong Joon-ho’s first feature film ever, Barking Dogs Never Bite. This is actually a particularly interesting one now that Parasite has amassed fans because there are quite a few similarities between the two. The 2000 South Korean film follows an ex-college professor who becomes vastly annoyed by the barking coming from his neighbors dogs in his apartment building. Irritated to the point of lunacy, he decides to kidnap the poor pups and abuse them.
Enter Park Hyun-nam, a young woman who works at the apartment complex. When she learns of the missing dog, she becomes entangled in the whole nasty situation. Barking Dogs Never Bite gets a low mark here mainly because I’m not a fan of watching dogs suffer! That being said, Bong Joon-ho’s first movie is very good. It’s an effective enough comedy thriller for audiences to forget its somewhat college-filmy quality.
6. Okja (2017)
Just ahead of Bong Joon-ho’s turn to Parasite, the director made a movie for Netflix called Okja. The movie goes between his Korean roots and recent turn to Hollywood with 2013’s Snowpiercer. The 2017 movie is a colorful satire about a South Korean girl named Mija and her best friend, Okja – a “super pig” developed by a big-business food manufacturer to quadruple their sales in the midst of a more environmentally conscious world.
As the company seeks to take Okja back for harvesting, Mija goes on a cross-country adventure to save him, meeting environmental terrorists played by Paul Dano, Steven Yuen and Lily Collins along the way. Jake Gyllenhaal also plays a wacky television personality and Tilda Swinton is a brace-wearing, blonde-haired heir to the company. It’s highly entertaining and reminiscent of Miyazaki’s work such as My Neighbor Totoro.
5. The Host (2006)
Bong Joon-ho’s first mainstream project hit screens almost fifteen years ago with a massive monster movie made a $6 million budget. The Host became a Korean blockbuster, becoming the highest grossing film from the region at the time ($89.4 million). Through its limited release in the United States, it made big waves as well – even finding a place on Quentin Tarantino’s top 20 films since 1992. (Bong Joon-ho just won over Tarantino in the Best Director category at the Oscars).
The Host has Parasite’s patriarch Song Kang Ho playing a father whose daughter is kidnapped by a mutated killer fish. It combines horror elements with fun action and humor, along with commenting on environmental degradation.
4. Snowpiercer (2013)
His first English-language film and biggest-budget project to date was Snowpiercer. Similar to Parasite, this movie discusses the class system with a physical representation of it. As the Best Picture winner has an impoverished family infiltrating a wealthy household, Snowpiercer has lower-class workers trying to reach the front of a train during a modern ice age.
This is not only one of Bong Joon-ho’s best movies, but an underrated and new turn for Avengers actor Chris Evans. Tilda Swinton plays a similarly colorful upper-class villain such as in Okja and Song Kang Ho once again finds a lead role.
3. Mother (2009)
Heading into the top three is Bong Joon-ho’s fourth film, Mother. And no, I’m not talking about that Jennifer Lawrence movie. 2009’s Mother is a thriller about a codependent mother and her mentally-disabled son. The movie follows Kim Hye-ja’s “mother” as she goes on a desperate attempt to prove her son is innocent of murder.
Mother is perhaps Bong Joon-ho’s most poetic film that blends his rapport with grotesque horror with elements of family drama. Once again, he is able to straddle the line between intense themes and play with humor in a beautiful and intriguing way.
2. Memories of Murder (2003)
This may be Bong Joon-ho’s second film ever, but it’s also his second-best movie to date too. The 2003 Korean film differentiates from his other work because it’s actually based on fact. Memories of Murder follows a pair of detectives (one of them again played by the immensely talented Song Kang Ho) as they are on the hunt for one of the first serial killers in Korean history.
Memories of Murder is much like David Fincher’s Zodiac in how the movie approaches police work, except it came first. The movie set in the ‘80s is desperate, it’s gripping, moving and it’s the beginning of Bong Joon-ho showing the immense talent he undoubtedly possesses.
1. Parasite (2019)
A filmmakers’ Best Picture winner doesn’t necessarily always correlate with their actual “best” work, but not in the case of Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s latest work brings together everything that makes his filmmaking great and elevates his strengths. Parasite clutches on to his South Korean roots while also implementing the strengths he’s discovered on his other projects over twenty years.
Parasite tells a distinct and timeless message of class struggles in a particularly visually masterful and layered way. It’s proof that Bong Joon-ho is capable of truly incredible moviemaking. It feels like the natural amalgamation of his already incredible body of work.
Which Bong Joon-ho movie are you checking out after Parasite? Sound off in the comments, share your favorite of his films and vote in the poll below!