Changing Cinema: How Bong Joon-Ho transcended the subtitle barrier and put international films in the American mainstream

Bong Joon-Ho won three Oscars for the Korean film “Parasite” in 2020, breaking international barriers that future films hope to replicate. (Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” 

In 2020, Bong Joon-Ho said these words when accepting the Best International Film award at the Golden Globes. The movie that won this award, “Parasite,” would later go on to win three Academy Awards, making history as the first international film to earn the Best Picture honor. Naturally, audience members like me were confused. How could a Korean movie with social commentary beat out a war flick, an adaptation of “Little Women” and a race car movie, all while triumphing at the American box office?

To the average observer, “Parasite” was a risk for American production companies. Neon, the United States and Canadian distributor of “Parasite,” took a gamble on a foreign film, reaping the benefits of raving audiences and positive critical reception. However, viewing “Parasite” as an isolated film and not as a product of Bong’s extensive filmography discounts the work that he and many other international directors have done to reach these milestones.

“Parasite” is a culmination of Bong’s efforts in both Korean and American filmmaking. By comparing Bong’s dystopian science-fiction thriller “Snowpiercer” (2013) — which stars a majority American cast and was distributed by the Weinstein Company — with one of his earliest Korean films “Memories of Murder” (2017), we can see how Bong used his understanding of both countries’ cultural themes to transcend the barriers of language and subtitles in films such as “Parasite.”

At their core, both films are commentaries about violence, class and authority. Bong directs “Memories of Murder” from a strictly historical lens, telling the story of a real-life Korean serial killer in the late 1980s. Through color grading techniques and a moody soundtrack, Bong creates an atmosphere which transports viewers to a historical period of paranoia and great fear. He portrays police officers that engage in both brutality and benevolence, having faith that his viewer can spot the nuances in each character’s psyche.

“Snowpiercer” is a much more direct story, depicting revolution in a post-apocalyptic cautionary tale. As the entire film is set on a train divided by class, Bong restricts the movement of his characters to a forward or backward direction, creating a linear narrative with clear moral boundaries. The film is clearly a story about justice against unjust authority — which is ironic considering it was distributed by the Weinstein Company.

“Memories of Murder” critiques authority in a less apparent way — the Korean viewer is implored to resist punitive answers and grapple with the unsolved case depicted (the murderer later confessed in 2019). Characters in “Snowpiercer” are eager for revenge and are consistently engaging in violent conflict with their oppressors and each other. In both films, Bong centers the people left behind, whether that be through history or the injustices of the present. While “Memories of Murder” depicts victims and detectives that are left in time, “Snowpiercer” follows the lower class that is left behind in the name of human growth and expansion.

Although these films both use character blocking and set design to articulate Bong’s vision of the past and future, his methods of storytelling differ in drastic ways. For instance, unlike “Snowpiercer,” we rarely see direct depictions of violence in “Memories of Murder.” Bong instead uses the killer’s place in Korean national consciousness to elongate feelings of disgust and dread. 

On the other hand, “Snowpiercer” is enveloped in violence, as leaders in the higher and lower classes are killed almost every minute. In a way, Bong’s direction reflects the excess of the ruling class in “Snowpiercer,” which had a budget 20 times the size of “Memories of Murder.” By directing grandiose action sequences and CGI surroundings, Bong is completely aware of his story’s scale and the narrative beats that will resonate with American audiences.

Perhaps Bong is signaling to Korean audiences that violence must be justified while showing American audiences that violence may be the only means to overthrow oppressors in dire situations. Pair this commentary with the history of war in Korea and the tendency for Americans to discount radical movements in favor of political civility, and we can begin to see the distinct contexts in which these films were created. 

When watching these films, I must say that my viewing experiences were biased. As an American film consumer, I have been jaded by the saturation of what Martin Scorcese calls “theme park” rides, otherwise known as superhero movies, throughout the film industry. It seems to me that American films have become less nuanced, perhaps indicating that American audiences have become less sophisticated and open-minded. So, naturally, when I saw that “Snowpiercer” starred Chris Evans who plays Captain America, I was already anticipating the film’s failure and cursing the American studios that meddled in Bong’s creative vision.

My mind changed after watching “Snowpiercer.” The film snobbery I previously displayed was thrown out of my metaphorical window, and I realized that both films achieve different goals while contributing to Bong’s directorial growth. I had stopped trying to prove that American film goers were inferior and instead started to analyze Bong’s unique approach to each of his films. His ability to find success in both domestic and international markets is a feat of its own, but his work in “Snowpiercer” and “Memories of Murder” also opened up the opportunity for him to make “Parasite,” a film that is accessible to all audiences.

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