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Monsters And Politics: The Genre Cinema of Bong Joon-Ho

Monsters And Politics: The Genre Cinema of Bong Joon-Ho

Picture of Erdinch Yigitce
Updated: 30 November 2016
Bong Joon-Ho has proved to be one of the most interesting directors working in Asian cinema today, a filmmaker who has a playful approach to genre, and is unashamedly enthralled by Hollywood mechanics. Erdinch Yigitce discusses three films from the director, while also exploring how Joon-Ho paints a wider social context for his work.


In reviving and intermingling tired, moribund genre tropes to imaginative effect (such as the crime picture, melodrama, horror and science fiction), the films of Boon Joon-Ho offer a unique perspective, engaging in a wry social commentary on Korean family dynamics (often featuring the struggles of a lower or middle class protagonist), politics and society.


His terrific 2006 film The Host is a worthy successor to the Godzilla movies of the 50s and 60s, mixing the giddy thrills of a creature feature with moving domestic drama and a witty socio-political slant. Similar to Godzilla’s powerful metaphor of Hiroshima and the aftershocks of nuclear fallout, the film is a political parable dressed up in B-movie theatrics. Beginning with an American scientist asking his Korean colleague to pour bottles of dirty formaldehyde down the drain, this satirical setup disturbingly recalls the similar true case in 2000 of a US Air Force employee in Seoul, who asked his colleagues to dispose of the toxic chemical, contaminating local water sources.


Joon-ho has denied claims that his film is anti-American, and asserts that the film is as much of a sly environmental metaphor as it is a political critique of the Korean government and their relationship with the United States. Joon-Ho is dealing with a different type of monster in Memories of Murder, a superlative blackly comic serial killer procedural based on a real life unsolved set of murders in the 80s. The film, a curious mixture of the forensic camera of David Fincher and the suburban surrealism of David Lynch, offers no easy emotional or narrative resolution, and the bumbling incompetence of the investigation is used to show wider corrupt governmental forces and societal unease.


The political subtext is even more subtle in his most recent theatrical release Mother. A wonderfully controlled Hitchcockian melodrama about a parent trying to prove the innocence of her mentally handicapped son who is accused of a horrific crime, the film seems more superficially concerned with the politics of family relationships. But there is still a sly critique of the police system as the complacent, unresponsive attitude of the criminal authorities forces the titular mother to become her own amateur detective and seek answers.