The Cinematic Politics of Bong Joon-ho, by Gord Sellar

If you want to really understand Bong Joon-ho’s films, you must let go of the word politics as you understand it. Imagine, instead, the politics of a ghost-haunted world. All around you, the victims of every massacre, corrupt deal and embezzled fund still walk, translucent and dark-eyed, pieces of collapsed shopping mall and their own army’s bullets protruding from their pallid, incorporeal forms. But the ghosts of those who did the massacring, bribe-taking and embezzling all roam the Earth, too, hissing excuses, unapologetic defenses and often outright lies into the ears of any who dares confront them…but also telling of their own sorrows, showing their own gaping wounds received within the same system. All the witnesses to history stumble about, into and through one another, their contradictory testimonies a deafening roar. These ghosts are not merely immaterial memories haunting the place, either: they often skin walk, repeating their traumas through the hands and mouths of others; their acrimony and their apologia alike subtly (and not so subtly) exert material force upon us.

How to live in such a world? These are no mere echoes of history, reverberating within our memories; they are much more like cultural poltergeists, shattering windows and declaring war upon the living, yet any exorcist who is summoned simply shrugs and walks away: nobody can banish all these ghosts, she might say, as if that weren’t obvious already. If one wishes to survive in such a place, one must learn to live with them, to develop the ability to look these ghosts in their omnipresent faces and hear their voices, and yet somehow dwell in the present.

***

Consider The Host: a film about a family hunting a ravenous daikaiju-style monster that emerged from the Han River to kidnap their child. If you don’t know South Korean history, you will think it’s a giant-monster movie…and, probably, enjoy it. But if you do know South Korean history, and you pay attention, a few things will hit you straight in the face. At the center of the menagerie of ghosts that haunt South Korea is a man named Park Chung-Hee, the dictator who ruled the nation from 1961 to 1979. His rule was terminated when one of his bodyguards shot him dead…but his influence continued, due to the belief that Park ‘saved’ South Korea from its poverty, almost single-handedly bringing the nation into the twentieth century. Korean leftists tend to see this as a case of Stockholm Syndrome and consider Park’s legacy to be more problematic: whatever economic progress he may have facilitated, Park also turned his country into a militarised police state focused on economic growth over anything else—a police state complete with torture for critics, assassination for political opponents, cops patrolling the streets to cut men’s hair and rulers to measure women’s skirt lengths, and tight controls on art, literature and pretty much everything else.

What has this to do with The Host? Well, for a start, the river from which the monster emerges has been used, constantly and for decades, as the central metaphor for South Korea’s rapid modernisation and economic development, often called the ‘Miracle on the Han’; that a giant monster should emerge ‘miraculously’ from its depths suggests that it represents the dark side of that rapid development, and how development also has split South Korean society into the haves and the have-nots—a geographic distinction, indeed: the river embodies an economic divide between these two classes in many parts of the city.1 Fittingly, The Host is saturated with echoes of the 1970s and 1980s: one major character is a former pro-democracy demonstrator, hurling Molotov cocktails to fight the monster that attacks his family, a monster that authorities deny even exists (they claim instead that a virus has broken out in Seoul); an abusively neglectful father (a clear Park figure) indirectly causes the mental crippling of his own son—a sort of intergenerational metaphor for the crippling of Koreans’ consciousness, which is almost carried out in full when a Korean nurse and an American doctor attempt to lobotomise the man. When the man resists, we are treated to a revelation: we see American soldiers and Korean politicians enjoying a big barbecue just outside the medical trailer. A small group of protesters is easily scattered by the release of an American bioweapon used to fight the ostensible ‘virus’ that has broken out in Seoul.

These are puzzle pieces that fit together, if you look at Korea through the right lens. What we could call the lens, in Western terms, is the ‘leftist’ lens, though it’s not quite that simple. The true lens is that of the minjung, a specifically anti-authoritarian conception of the Korean race. Essentially, minjung is a word for that class of people whose circumstances don’t markedly improve even through radical political change: the people who were no better off before the Japanese occupation of 1910 to 1945, and no better off after Korean rule was reinstated, and still are not really better off even now that Korea is a democracy…but minjung was not merely a formulation of class suffering: it also included a prescription for their ills, in solidarity. In the 1980s especially, the notion of this class’s potential power gained so much traction that the pro-democracy movement named itself after the term, calling itself the ‘Minjung Movement’, which was was translated into English as ‘People Power’. The Minjung Movement’s link to peasant cultures of the past were clear: on campuses and in the streets, students resurrected and reinvented neglected folk arts from before the Japanese occupation—mask dances, percussion performances, stylised plays—to criticise the dictatorships that ran Korea from 1961 until 1987, and rally students to the fight.

And, of course, it was in the 1980s that Bong Joon-ho himself attended university: this was the intellectual and political milieu that surrounded him in early adulthood, as a member of that generation that used often to be called by Koreans the ‘3-8-6 Generation’: those who were in their 3rd decade by the 1990s, who went to college in the 1980s, and were born in the 1960s. Today, the term 3-8-6 isn’t really used much. Neither is the term minjung, for that matter: the concept of minjok has come to dominate over the last twenty years. Minjok—a deeply modernist ethnonationalist term borrowed from the Japanese term minzoku—stresses unity, homogeneity and adherence to the collective’s ideals. It’s an ideology tailor-made for dictators, especially Park, and heavily promoted by them, and it was precisely to contest this notion of minjok that minjung was first developed, and seized upon by the democracy movement.

Unsurprisingly, given the way it was woven into the official cultures of education, the workplace, the national literature, and everything else, as well as for other reasons to be explored below, minjok has clearly won out in South Korea. (Which is one reason South Korea struggles so much with the speed at which it is diversifying racially.) Even the city of Seoul itself is shaped by a kind of minjok polisomancy: the most prominent statues in the downtown area are of Yi Sunsin—regarded by Koreans as one of the greatest admirals in world history, and the subject of a recent film—and, behind him, King Sejong, regarded as the greatest of Korean kings. Both figures are favorites in the nationalist historiography of minjok ideology; both are also central male authority figures, and both indeed embody the triumph of minjok over minjung.

But not everywhere, Bong’s films seem to insist. The minjung—the oppressed, who have untapped resources of power within them—still exist, and remain oppressed, but they can still fight for their own liberation, for the completion of what was begun in the 1980s. This theme—the notion of either defeated torpor into which Korea’s minjung have fallen and from which they must be roused, or the dramatisation of a recommencement of the minjung’s struggle—resonates through practically every film project in which Bong has become involved, though the idea of a minjung uprising is most central in Snowpiercer, an adaptation of Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. Here, a train plummets endlessly through a frozen landscape, its inhabitants both trapped onboard and trapped in a specific section of the train. Those in the tail section keep the train moving forward but also live in horrifying conditions, which lead them to stage a rebellion—not the first, they are aware; as they travel through the train, they discover that their poverty has been artificial, and that the truth of their oppression has been hidden from them.

Snowpiercer is, in other words, a dramatisation of the awakening of class consciousness, where socioeconomic class and the mechanisms of its maintenance (education, for example) are laid out spatially within the form of a single long series of train cars. The lens of minjung ideology throws into bold relief a few other very interesting, but less incidental, elements of Snowpiercer. For one thing, it is consciously transracial: the train’s underclass includes white, black and Asian characters, and despite language and cultural barriers and personal disagreements, they manage to band together to successfully battle their oppressors and advance through the train. Neither is the violence gendered: women and men (and children, and the elderly) all fight on the Snowpiercer.2 This brings to mind, for me at least, the oft-heard observation that the women’s movement in Korea has backslid radically since the collapse of the Minjung Movement, as well as since the ‘IMF crisis’ (more about which below).

Also, it is worth noting that, while the ending of Snowpiercer subverts one or two dominant racial trends in Hollywood, like the ending of so many of Bong’s films it is in some ways inconclusive: the victory condition of any neo-minjung uprising is, perhaps, impossible to depict…or perhaps any kind of imagining of uprising (and its depiction on the big screen) is simply, and in itself, a kind of provisional victory condition in itself. Lastly, the uprising is as brutally violent as the oppression it combats. While violence is common in Hollywood movies, revolutionary violence (especially committed by groups engaged in violent class revolt) seems almost unheard of: one rarely sees poor people fighting back violently against those who maintain class injustice.

That said, Bong is not naïve about the minjung: they are, after all, an oppressed class, and oppression often has devastating results for both individuals and their communities, as Bong explores in his 2010 hit thriller Mother. The title is actually the English word, but it puns on the homophonic Korean pronunciation of this word and ‘murder’, which is fitting since the film tells the story of a mother…and of murder. Mother could have been set in 1980, or 1970, given the conditions under which the characters live, and given the inept laziness and corruption of the police (also a recurring theme in Bong’s work)…but Mother is set in the present day, a feat possible because of the burgeoning poverty experienced by that lowest class of Koreans. What’s radical about this is the fact that Bong depicts this poverty at all, and in such an unflinching fashion: poverty, when it appears in Korean cinema, is usually a cue either to unrepentant villainy or to melodramatic sobbing. Bong’s exploration of what he called in one interview ‘an almost diseased relationship between mother and son’ touches on many issues in Korean society: the unhealthy lack of boundaries between many parents and their children, the amoral familialism. But it is also solidly located in the social class that is most marginalised and excluded: those people whom one never sees on the streets of Seoul, because they have been banished to the periphery—the legal, social, political, narrative and literal periphery—in South Korea. To exist as part of the minjung is not to be a poor, sad, long-suffering saint, Bong seems to argue: poverty, exclusion, and marginalisation are corruptive, destructive: they are destructive conditions, and produce profoundly destroyed people.

***

It is impossible to speak of the Minjung Movement without speaking of Chun Doo-Hwan. Though he is called ‘president’, Chun was in fact a dictator: brutal, corrupt and now almost universally reviled. This was, for the legacy of Park Chung-Hee, a boon: in comparison to Chun, even Park looked good. Chun took control of South Korea in a violent coup in 1979, and would step down eight years later, in 1987.

That context gives an ominous resonance to the title of Bong’s Salinui Chueok (Memories of Murder), the screen adaptation of a stage play that was Bong’s first hit film. At first glance, the narrative (which was based on a true story) seems to put a Korean historical spin on the typical Hollywood serial-killer manhunt: in 1986, a cop from the city shows up in a small countryside town where South Korea’s first modern serial killer has been hunting women on rainy nights, and has to deal with the corruption, incompetence and plain stupidity of rural policemen who do more to impede his investigation than to aid it. These country policemen embody the worst of authoritarian tendencies: picking individuals to frame for murder, mocking and reviling the use of evidence or investigative techniques, torturing confessions out of the men they arrest, and ultimately failing to catch the killer.

But while it’s not unusual for a Korean film to have an unhappy or ambiguous ending, the film resonates with a much bigger pool of memories of another kind of murder, memories that reside in a zone of collective cultural amnesia. Consider the setting of the film: rural South Korea, in 1986. Beside themes of an ultimately ‘unsolved’ (or, rather, unpunished) series of murders, corrupt authoritarianism, and the amnesia of the central character, one cannot help think of that other murder that haunts all of South Korea—a mass murder that occurred in the city of Kwangju, in southern South Korea, in May 1980.

‘Mass murder’ is, of course, a loaded term, and there are South Koreans—especially those who have internalised the anticommunist paranoia of the Park era, essentially the Korean equivalent of the American Tea Party—who would take issue with my calling Kwangju a ‘mass murder’, for they still believe Chun’s lie that Kwangju was a communist uprising. What really happened, in a nutshell, was that pro-democracy protesters took control of the city to protest Chun’s seizure of power, including seizing arms from the local armory; Chun’s response to the uprising was to dispatch the army and police, who were under the impression that they were fighting a communist insurrection. The result was a well-documented, horrifying mass slaughter of civilians by the army and the police—not the first in postwar South Korea (one had occurred on Jeju Island decades before) but certainly the most famous…and, of course, the fact that Kwangju’s pro-democracy protesters had hoped for American military or political support, and got none, resulted in the radicalisation of the Korean minjung movement and the birth of mainstream anti-American sentiment in South Korea. (A sentiment also explored in The Host.) 

Like the serial killer in Memories of Murder, Chun ultimately went unpunished for his murder: just as the murderer in the film is caught but then (because his prosecution will be hampered by possibly botched evidence) allowed to escape down a dark train tunnel, Chun was arrested and condemned to death for his crimes, but he ultimately received a presidential pardon from his successor and was allowed to escape into the shadows of history. Despite recently being targeted for unpaid taxes (a move seen by many as mere political manoeuvring by the current president), he leads a very comfortable life in one of Seoul’s wealthiest neighbourhoods…albeit with the kind of security detail required by probably the most widely and consistently hated man in the country.3

***

Kwangju, however, was not the only event in modern South Korean history to brutalise Korean society. A more recent, but arguably more immediate and universal trauma, was the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997—although, if you use that term in Korea, you will get blank looks. For Koreans, what happened in 1997 is referred to as the ‘IMF crisis’ or, these days, simply ‘IMF’—a domestic economic disorder, perhaps, but one that was worsened by the IMF (a foreign institution), which demanded cuts, cuts and more cuts. The trauma of economic collapse meshed with the narrative of foreign menace, already deep-seated after years of xenophobic propaganda and growing anti-Americanism; this only added to the trauma of a mass economic collapse, surging unemployment, and a sudden drop in the quality of life for millions of Koreans…exactly at a time when South Koreans were beginning to enjoy real wealth and ‘the good life’, and starting to feel as though Korea was finally enjoying a collective success story. People were even beginning to question whether working and studying themselves into early graves was really a worthy choice—when suddenly everything fell apart, and back into poverty went untold millions. For many, the long-promised recovery has not come: domestic menace has led to a widening income gap, lasting youth unemployment, diminishing poverty exit rates, and a massively increased suicide rate across all age groups.

The trauma of the ‘IMF’ has played a role in several of Bong’s film projects—it quietly informs a lot of the action in his first feature film Flandersui Gae (Barking Dogs Never Bite), for example. That film explored the same kinds of corruption, abuses of power and wilful forgetting as many of Bong’s other films, but from the angle of comedy focused on missing pet dogs (and pet abuse), and featuring a corrupt professor and his pregnant wife, an earnest government bureaucrat, an unscrupulous security guard and a homeless man who share a taste for the most controversial dish in South Korea. 

But the trauma of the IMF experience is more deeply explored in the first film for which Bong has served as producer, Shim Sung-bo’s 2014 Haemoo (literally, ‘Sea Fog’, though as yet no official English title exists). Haemoo is a drama set on a barely functional fishing trawler, the captain of which—having fallen on hard times—decides to illegally transport Korean-Chinese migrants to South Korea for a hefty sum of money…and then everything possible goes wrong.

Like Memories of Murder, Haemoo is based on real events, and like so many of Bong’s film projects,4 it is a study of the psychology of authoritarianism from both sides: the mind of an authoritarian ‘captain’ and the minds of those who submit to him—yet another echo of Park. However, the film is bristlingly, and brilliantly, political: from its sympathetic portrayal of Chinese Koreans (lately, the most widely hated group of emigrants to Korea) to its exploration of the radical sexism that exists on board the ship, there is a political consciousness that never really abates. The film also abounds with references to the ‘IMF’ that the crew hurl at the Chinese Koreans during arguments, as well as, though this is unspoken, with references to the poverty—and the bundles of money that are supposed to alleviate it—that drives the characters to their crime in the first place. But again, this is a narrative of an authoritarian who undergoes the demonic transformation that comes with untrammeled power: the results, of course, are spectacularly horrible.

***

As a coda, a simple observation: Bong Joon-ho, pretty much every chance he gets, disavows the idea of his being a political filmmaker at all. It’s a curious tendency, given how overly and intelligently political his work is. He often emphasises that the point of his films is entertainment—and they are definitely entertaining—but it’s difficult for anyone remotely aware of contemporary South Korea to miss his incessant engagement with the nation’s most pressing political and social issues.

A few possibilities come to mind. One is that Bong, understandably, doesn’t wish to be slotted into the category of ‘political filmmaker’ because he wants to continue making a living making movies. Ideals are nice, but they don’t secure Hollywood deals, and far too many people (especially in South Korea) are quick to assume that anything ‘political’ is also boring and serious, and that fun means, essentially, Young Adult fare. There’s also the fact that the kind of minjung politics that so deeply inform Bong’s films don’t square well with modern South Korean politics, either on the left or on the right: it’s a more radical (as in ‘root’) form of progressive thinking, and the current state of both left and right in Korea are such that it’s understandable that anyone would want to distance himself from both at once…especially given that in South Korea progressives in general tend to get labelled as insane, labelled as troublemakers, or—even today, thanks to the lingering influence of the Park family—accused of being communists. There’s also a fourth possibility, though, which is that Bong realises that the best way to maintain his viability as a stealth agent for the minjung is to keep off the overtly political radar, while still delivering a consciousness-raising message via entertainment.

Whatever the case, and whether he admits it or not, Bong is the best and the brightest, and also the most political, of all filmmakers in South Korean cinema, and to most of the Korean progressives I know, he’s a breath of fresh air.   

Gord Sellar is a Canadian writer and musician who lived in South Korea from 2002 to 2013 and has recently returned to Seoul. Visit his website at gordsellar.com.

1 Indeed, like the monster, the Han River even swallows a number of poor people every time it floods…but only in the worst neighborhoods, of course.

2 Given the length of time involved in feature-film production, it is surely only coincidence that the apparent dictator on the train is a woman, though that detail is nonetheless interesting given that the current president is the first woman to hold that office in South Korea, and is also the daughter of a dictator. (The dictator on the train is also a stand-in for the real authoritarian power, just as Park is a stand-in for her father in many minds.)

3 Indeed, one famous comic dramatising a heroic conspiracy to assassinate Chun—Kangfull’s 26 Nyeon (26 Years)—was adapted for the big screen a few years ago.

4 The psychological horror film Antarctic Journal, which Bong wrote but did not direct, comes to mind as another powerful exploration of both authoritarianism and the psychology of submission to insane, criminal authority.

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Gord Sellar

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