Cannes' top winner a biting satirist

Film-maker Bong Joon-ho (left) is known for critical and commercial hits such as sci-fi action adventure Okja (right) and monster blockbuster The Host (below right).
Film-maker Bong Joon-ho (above) is known for critical and commercial hits such as sci-fi action adventure Okja and monster blockbuster The Host.PHOTOS: CHEONGORAM, NETFLIX, REUTERS
Film-maker Bong Joon-ho (left) is known for critical and commercial hits such as sci-fi action adventure Okja (right) and monster blockbuster The Host (below right).
Film-maker Bong Joon-ho is known for critical and commercial hits such as sci-fi action adventure Okja (above) and monster blockbuster The Host.PHOTOS: CHEONGORAM, NETFLIX, REUTERS
Film-maker Bong Joon-ho (left) is known for critical and commercial hits such as sci-fi action adventure Okja (right) and monster blockbuster The Host (below right).
Film-maker Bong Joon-ho is known for critical and commercial hits such as sci-fi action adventure Okja and monster blockbuster The Host (above).PHOTOS: CHEONGORAM, NETFLIX, REUTERS

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who bagged the Palme d'Or for morality tale Parasite, hides his gift for satire behind a mild-mannered exterior

CANNES (France) • South Korea's Bong Joon-ho has confirmed his status as one of the world's greatest directors with his Cannes film festival win for Parasite, a fabulously funny morality tale about the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

It is the first big international prize for the maker of the hugely acclaimed The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013), who was the critics' choice for the Palme d'Or.

Stellar performances from Bong stalwarts like Lee Jeong-eun and Song Kang-ho, as the patriarch of a clan of scammers who latch onto a rich family, blew away audiences at Cannes.

The director called Song his "alter ego" and ushered him onto the stage as he picked up the prize.

The Guardian hailed Bong's thrilling black comedy as a twisted "modern-day Downton Abbey... which gets its tendrils in you".

Yet, the soft-spoken 49-year-old director hides his gift for biting social satire behind a mild-mannered exterior.

Once likened by American film-maker Quentin Tarantino to acclaimed director "Steven Spielberg in his prime", Bong Joon-ho was among the first wave of South Korean film-makers to blossom after the country's full democratisation in the late 1980s, which opened the door for a cultural renaissance.

With a series of critical and commercial hits behind him, he is one of South Korea's best-known faces, winning multiple awards at home and tellingly making inroads into Hollywood - a rarity for an Asian auteur.

But up till now, major international prizes had eluded him.

His Netflix-produced sci-fi action adventure Okja (2017), starring Tilda Swinton, was a global hit after missing out on the Palme d'Or in Cannes that year.

Once likened by American film-maker Quentin Tarantino to acclaimed director "Steven Spielberg in his prime", Bong was among the first wave of South Korean film-makers to blossom after the country's full democratisation in the late 1980s, which opened the door for a cultural renaissance.

His contemporaries in this golden South Korean generation include Park Chan-wook, celebrated director of 2004 Cannes Grand Prix winner Old Boy and erotic thriller The Handmaiden (2016).

Bong reportedly took part in street protests as a sociology student at Seoul's elite Yonsei University during the country's pro-democracy movement in the 1980s, and once told an interviewer he was arrested for using petrol bombs.

That rage roars through Parasite, which Variety's Jessica Kiang said is "a tick fat with the bitter blood of class rage".

She added that Bong's "brilliant film is unmistakably, roaringly furious, and it registers because the target is so deserving, so enormous, so 2019".

Bong was a vocal backer of freedom of expression and opponent of once-commonplace political pressure on artists in his homeland. His activism saw him placed among more than 10,000 artists who were blacklisted for being critical of ousted former president Park Geun-hye.

But it was his masterful, humorous portrayals of South Korean society, delivered rich with cinematic allegories, that marked his talent.

His Memories Of Murder - a 2003 feature film based on real-life serial killings that rattled the nation in the 1980s - was seen as a metaphor for the repressive society of military rule.

The film - also praised for its dark humour - swept all domestic film awards and is often cited by critics as one of the top 10 South Korean movies made.

His monster blockbuster The Host portrayed an incompetent government left helpless in the wake of a disaster. In 2014, parallels were drawn between the film and the Sewol ferry sinking that killed about 300, mostly schoolchildren.

Mother - a 2009 thriller about the overprotective mother of a mentally disabled boy suspected of murder - was also a huge success.

Both The Host and Mother were shown at Cannes, Mother cementing Bong's reputation, and he was soon flooded by overseas directorial offers.

Bong's first American project, Snowpiercer, featured Hollywood heavyweights including Captain America star Chris Evans as well as Swinton, who went on to perform in Okja.

That movie - about a country girl trying to save a genetically engineered beast from a greedy multinational firm - raised debates about factory farming and the brutality of animal exploitation.

"Many people call me a great satirist, but I don't think I had a choice as a South Korean filmmaker," Bong told Agence France-Presse last year.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SEE LIFE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2019, with the headline 'Cannes' top winner a biting satirist'. Print Edition | Subscribe