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The Hard Truths and Dismantled Constructs of Bong Joon-ho Movies

By David Young · May 15, 2023

The Hard Truths and Dismantled Constructs of Bong Joon-ho Movies_featured

There are many stories that tackle problems that feel universal. In fact, the best often do — they speak to failure, love, or the dangers of the world outside. But not every story shows major social constructs that are the source of these conflicts like Bong Joon-ho movies.

Whether it’s a classist society, exploitation by corporations, or a world willing to ignore lurking dangers, Bong Joon-ho has a penchant for calling out the root of an issue. As you look at films created by him, you’ll start to see how each root cause is used as a backdrop for a world and major conflict that drives Bong’s narrative. You’ll also get to see how the stories he writes start to challenge and even dismantle these root causes, or at least put them front and center for the audience to make them think critically about what’s happening.

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Greed is a nasty creature indeed, but how much worse can it be than absurd inequality between families? NEON’s Parasite tackles this question head-on.

As the Kim family faces reminders of their financial issues, they see an opportunity to take advantage of the Parks — whose own riches become a source of avarice and fevered motivation for increasing acts of desperation. Whether it’s blackmail, faking illnesses, or outright violence, it’s enough for Bong Joon-Ho to demonstrate the power of class struggles — the power to change people’s minds and turn families against one another.

This power dynamic plays throughout the entire movie as a central problem, the root cause of the other conflicts in the plot. Thanks to this singular focus, any audience gets to see the full effects of class conflict in action. With that, Bong can demonstrate just how wrong, pervasive, and destructive that kind of world is. He also uses the conflicts that arise later as methods of dismantling the same constructs, an iconic black comedy tactic that fits within this thrilling, satirical piece.

There’s a reason it captured the attention of everyone who watched and won awards left and right: It speaks to us. Class conflict is everywhere. Only by watching dangerous consequences of it arise can everyday people really give the issue all the thought and attention it deserves.

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A classic kind of tale, “A girl and her pig,” Netflix’s Okja hits all the right beats for the adventure story it truly is. But it hits other notes, too: As a science-fiction story, the whole narrative is driven into conflict by a technological wonder — the super-pigs bred by a megacorporation. These super-pigs are evaluated, and the one that becomes the specimen of interest for this huge corporate body is Okja, the best friend and companion of Mija, the young daughter of a Korean farmer.

When the company steps in to reap their harvest and kidnap the animal, it’s up to Mija and the Animal Liberation Front to save Okja and take her back home. But this quest isn’t just a face-value adventure story. It explores the corruption and forsaken environmentalism that takes place in hyper-capitalist economies. From the symbolic forfeiture of Mija’s grandfather to the two-faced operations in the ALF, there are too many examples of how that capitalist world beats down on everyone, empowered by science and talk of good intentions.

As we watch the horror that Mija and Okja go through together and on their own, it serves as Bong’s reminder to us all that exploitation of animals and the environment often become a modus operandi for obtaining larger profits. It’s also a reminder that only through action can the unjust status quo be disrupted.

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Memories of Murder

Injustice pervades in plenty of stories, both real and fictional. The dangers of a society that accepts, ignores, or even willfully abets violent crime can’t be understated in any story. That said, it’s always worse to know that the story is based on true events. Another NEON great, Memories of Murder is Bong Joon-Ho’s attempt to revisit something from real life to this extent, showcasing a pattern of malpractice by Korean law enforcement in the late eighties, based loosely on the first documented Korean serial killer.

In this story, serial rape and murder begin occurring often enough to warrant investigation — but Bong shows a police force with suspicious or problematic methods in evidence collection and analysis. As a local detective and his partner start to see themselves as out of their depth, they’re accompanied by Seo Tae-yoon, a hardboiled investigator from Seoul. The story is an anecdotal demonstration of the beginning of technological crime-fighting in Korea, using DNA among other tools to set the record straight. But the problem came long before and remains long after technology began helping fight crime:

A society’s willingness to sit back and do nothing. It’s this conflict that drives the renewed mettle of the story’s investigation task force, and through their hard work, the complacency within that world is challenged quite a bit. That said, Memories of Murder serves to show that such complacency in the face of utter terror can exist — and in many places, it still does.

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Naturally, a writer so involved in calling out society would be interested in a story about a post-apocalyptic world. The futurescape Bong shows is a frozen-over wasteland, wherein survivors of disaster live aboard a perpetually moving locomotive. Class struggles and global devastation are key to this story, and it keenly demonstrates both in the film. This movie does so well to share the deadly consequences born in this sci-fi world that it also inspired a television series to showcase events happening five years earlier.

It’s a class war waiting to happen, and by watching the film you get to see those events become a powerful motivator in a world where there’s nearly nothing to gain outside this ever-moving train. As always, the tongue-in-cheek attitude toward our own world’s failings creates a strong argument and a fascinating narrative that people everywhere can understand and be forced to reckon with. Bong’s clear understanding of that argument makes his film not only visually spectacular but emotionally significant.

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It’s said that storytellers “tell the truth of things,” and it’s those truths that often scare or delight us. Stories about love and growing up can be powerful, but stories about corruption, greed, and environmental dangers are able to highlight where society is broken. That’s Bong Joon-Ho’s signature in storytelling, whether it’s the failings of the corporate world, of the world, or of a single town.

If you’re looking to demonstrate hard truths and dismantle worlds of corruption in your narratives, you’d better study the stories Bong has brought to life. There’s no better place to start!

Read More: Celebrating the Best Screenplays by AAPI Writers

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