Ranked

Every Bong Joon-ho Film, Ranked

With Memories of Murder and Barking Dogs Never Bite both on re-release in the UK, we take a deep dive into Bong's films so far...

Up until fairly recently, the name Bong Joon-ho was known only to a small group of dedicated cinephiles outside of his native Korea, who recognised and championed his idiosyncratic body of work as though privy to a brilliant secret. Now, following the release and Oscar glory of his masterful Parasite, Director Bong (as he's affectionately known in the West) has sky-rocketed to household name status, attracting a feverish army of fans who can't get enough of his particular brand of genre-defying cinema – and with it pulling Korean cinema into the mainstream.

When it comes to Bong, though, there is no “worst to best.” More like “very good to it's a masterpiece.” Each and every one of his features, even the most flawed, are worth experiencing at least once. Packed with social commentary but never heavy-handed or condescending, they tend to revolve around Bong's obsessive interest in Korea's class system, while simultaneously considering his country's place in the world. They're also jam-packed with twists and turns, an inherent ability to flip a narrative in unexpected ways. In short: Bong is his own brand of cinema.

To celebrate the re-release of both his debut feature Barking Dogs Never Bite and police procedural Memories of Murder in the UK, we've tackled his immense filmography to date. Behold: every Bong Joon-ho film, ranked…

 

7. Okja (2017)

Where to watch it: Netflix

Bong tackles everything from animal rights to capitalism with his 2017 action-adventure Okja, but this feels somewhat more haphazard than his usual output and a little less complete, with tonal shifts that aren't quite as convincing. There is a clear Miyazaki influence in the story of a giant hippo-elephant creature destined for the slaughterhouse, who is befriended – and repeatedly rescued – by a young girl played by Ahn Seo Hyun (Okja is not based on a comic book, but its aesthetics suggest that it could be). Highlights include Jake Gyllenhaal chewing the scenery to truly absurd levels as a madman scientist with an ulterior motive, and some fantastically-realised chase sequences. It's good, but never quite makes the transition into great.

 

6. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

Where to watch it: Curzon Home Cinema

Bong's debut saw him tackling what would later stand as his most prevalent themes in its exploration of Korean society and class relations. Barking Dogs Never Bite follows a University lecturer who, beaten down by the system and put in a difficult position by his employer, decides to take out his anger by murdering the yapping dogs that live in his apartment block. If that sounds grim, Bong renders the tale – loosely based on a 19th century children's novel – with his usual blend of black comedy and fondness with unexpected tangents. You can see the germ of Parasite at work here, the attempt to blend social commentary with his trademark weirdness. It's freaky fun and surprisingly poignant at its end, though perhaps not one for the animal lovers out there.

 

5. Mother (2009)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

We know we are in great hands from the very first shot, a strange and stunningly rendered dance sequence, in which lead actor Kim Hye-ja  stares directly into the camera – a Bong trope – while standing in a field of grain. Another successful attempt at turning familiar genres upside-down, Mother unfolds as something of an anti-murder mystery. Instead of the usual detective, we get the overly protective mother of a young man who's been accused of killing a young woman. Here, Bong delights in leading us down one path, only to change directions whenever we think we understand what's happening. A boy's best friend might be his mother, this film purports, but at what point does unconditional love cross into complicity?

4. The Host (2006)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The Host was the first film to garner Bong major attention in the West, what with its Hollywood-ready story of a slimy monster who crawls out of the Han river and begins to terrorise the citizens of Seoul. The film is an unmistakable take on a real life incident, in which a Korean mortician claimed to have been ordered by the US to dump harmful amounts of formaldehyde. Bong cleverly uses the monster movie genre to explore the toxic relationship between the United States and a complicit Korea, but wraps his commentary in a thrilling, unpredictable tale about a family's haphazard attempts to rescue a young girl, who's captured by the beast.

 

3. Snowpiercer (2013)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Surely this is Bong's most underrated film? A completely crazed but relentlessly entertaining exploration of class disguised as a blockbuster – and there is Chris Evans, Captain America himself, to sell it. This was Bong's first film in the English language, a hybrid of styles and tones that only serves to make it weirder in a good way. Essentially a series of barmy set-pieces, it follows a ragtag group who must work their way from one end of a futuristic train that's carrying the remaining members of society as it hurtles through a frozen wasteland. Tilda Swinton (playing an absurd Northern English caricature) and Ed Harris co-star. Snowpiercer is insane, but what a ride!

 

2. Parasite (2019)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Not the top spot, you cry?! So close! Parasite, which made an incredible $264 million at the box office and ushered in a new era of South Korean cinema appreciation in the West, feels like a filmmaker working at the top of their game – a perfectly weighed, sleek engine of a film that moves effortlessly between genres and throws up one jaw-dropping twist after another, a ghost story of the most terrifying and hilarious design. Its story of feuding families – one rich, one poor – is typically Bongian, but never has the filmmaker explored themes of class and social divide with the confidence and skill on display here. And what of those sudden shifts in tone that bedazzled the unfamiliar, busting open cinema at the seams – a reminder of the medium's endless possibilities, and a wake up call to those whose fear of subtitles and foreign films had – up until Parasite – made their world so much smaller.

 

1. Memories of Murder (2003)

Where to watch it: Curzon Home Cinema

As devastating as it is funny, Memories of Murder is proof that Bong’s talent for blending humour and high stakes drama was in full flow as far back as 2003 (just ask Quentin Tarantino, who once named this as one of his 20 favourite movies ever made). Based on the true story of South Korea’s first serial killer, it follows three detectives as they set out to investigate the murders of five women and are continually run aground, limited by the lack of technology and a case they're totally unprepared for. It's an anti-thriller that reinvented what the serial killer movie could be, switching the focus onto the turmoil experienced by those charged with an impossible task. Bong delivers it with such precision and grace that despite the big laughs, the final, soul-searching scene lands with an earth-shattering poignancy.

Memories of Murder is now showing in select UK cinemas. Barking Dogs Never Bite is available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema.

Other Features

Tracey Deer on Beans: “There is still so much work to be done”

The filmmaker is trying to reshape Canadians’ understanding of the country’s Indigenous community. Adam Solomons talks to the TIFF prize-winner about her debut narrative feature

Best of the Fest: 12 Essential Films From BFI LFF 2020

We've gathered up our most glowing reviews from this year's festival, from groundbreaking animation to dizzying debuts

Best Films to Watch in London and Stream This Week

From cinema releases to streaming gems, including a meditation of male friendship and the return of everyone's favourite Kazakh reporter

Every Sofia Coppola Film, Ranked

The Bling Ring or The Beguiled? With On the Rocks now in cinemas, Ella Kemp sorts through the filmmaker's sumptuous canon so far...

Reviews

Pixie review – silly but joyous Irish spaghetti western

Olivia Cooke shines as the enigmatic title character in this bonkers genre subversion, co-starring Alec Baldwin as a drug-dealing priest

David Byrne’s American Utopia review – a comfort blanket for troubled times

The inimitable Talking Heads frontman teams with Spike Lee for this joyous celebration of where we are and where we're going

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You review – stirring and transcendent making-of

The Boss's first collaboration with the full E Street Band in over 35 years is brought to life in this brilliantly spirited documentary

Totally Under Control review – intermittently astonishing COVID doc

Alex Gibney's look at America's disastrous handling of the pandemic is studious and important, even as it peters out