Bong Joon-Ho, Viral Superstar: How A South Korean Director Became The Internet’s Best Friend

The director of 'Parasite' has become a global superstar. But why?

Bong Joon-Ho

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There are only a handful of directors who have become a brand in and of themselves — endlessly memeable entities with faces and trademarks that even non-cinephiles could pick out of a crowd. Think Quentin Tarantino. Steven Spielberg. And now, perhaps most surprising of all, Bong Joon-Ho.

The South Korean auteur has been something of a celebrity in his own country since at least the release of Memories of a Murder, his acclaimed crime thriller. But in the West, it took Parasite, his wormy, anti-capitalist thriller to really throw him into the mainstream spotlight.

Since the release of that film, and Director Bong’s endless press tour for it, he has become a viral celebrity. Tweets about him frequently rack up likes in the thousands. Quotes from his interviews, videos of him deadpanning about the delights of Soju — anything the man touches spreads like jam.

Which, at least on first glance, is rather odd. Spielberg is famous because he’s directed some of the highest-grossing, most beloved films of all time. Tarantino is famous because he’s a reckless self-promoter with a face screaming to be turned into caricature.

And then there’s Director Bong. Director Bong doesn’t have a ‘uniform’ like David Lynch, or a passion for controversy like Lars Von Trier. Director Bong is a quietly spoken, polite South Korean man, who just so happens to have made some of the most daring and formally innovative films of the last fifty years.

So why is Director Bong one of the most memed filmmaker on the planet? And why now?

Bong Joon-Ho The Anti-Capitalist

Bong Joon-Ho’s first film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, is a loose, formless series of experiments in style that establish all of the man’s trademarks: sudden, lurching shifts from comedy to horror; baroque pans; grimy, green-speckled colour palettes. But more than that, it precisely captures the obsession that would haunt him for the rest of his career: class warfare and capitalism.

Director Bong isn’t a philosopher, he’s a filmmaker, and he makes movies about people first and foremost. But in every one of his films, his heroes have come up messily against the blunt force of shady, bureaucratic businesses.

The Host is a monster film in the Godzilla mould that features a creature created by sloppy American imperialists. Snowpiercer, his first English language feature, is set on a post-apocalyptic train where classes have been divided up between the carriages. Okja, his bizarro Netflix epic, dismantles the inhumanity that drives factory farming.

Even something like Mother, his least explicitly political film, deals with the struggle between the haves and the have-nots; between those who have held power their whole life, and those who don’t even know what it looks like.

And then there’s Parasite.

In a way, Parasite is the movie that Bong Joon-Ho has been leading up to his whole career: a vicious, jet-black comedy about the rift between the classes and the things that happen when you treat human beings as less than they are.

To call it a movie made for our time might even be an understatement. Audiences haven’t been as ready to leap on films about class since at least the ’70s, when counter-culture went mainstream and suspicion of the government was at an all-time high. We’re living in dark times that are only getting darker, and wealth inequality isn’t some 50 cent phrase in a sociology textbook; it is the very fabric of our lives.

Same goes for the anti-American sentiment that has coursed through all Director Bong’s films. The last four years have seen Donald Trump expose the craven cruelty at the heart of the entire American system — what was once subtext is now right there, in the forefront of everything we do. Our lives are conducted in the shadows of U.S. horrors. So are Director Bong’s films.

That’s at least partially why the man has become such a viral figurehead. Young people are angrier about the status quo than ever before. And the things that they are pointing fingers at — the military complex; self-obsessed rich people — have been the targets of Director Bong’s films for over two decades.

It helps too that Director Bong has made a lot of that explicit in his Parasite press tour. “Okja, Snowpiercer, Parasite, they’re all stories about capitalism,” Bong told reporter E. Alex Jung. “Before it’s a massive, sociological term, capitalism is just our lives.”

He didn’t tone down those criticisms even when collecting his Golden Globe for Parasite. Speaking through a translator, Bong Joon-Ho encouraged Americans to get over the “one-inch tall barrier of subtitles”; to open their minds a little bit.

The internet had a field day.

Director Bong The Everyman

But there’s a reason that not everybody who makes a film about capitalism gets to become an internet hero (if so, Oliver Stone fandoms would be at an all-time high.) Director Bong doesn’t only sum up the sentiments of the time; he does so in a deeply relatable way.

This is unusual for filmmakers. Many of them like to prop up the myth of the tortured, divinely inspired artist. Tarantino talks about his own creative prowess like he’s Michelangelo standing in front of a block of marble. Even Greta Gerwig, a significantly less self-obsessed artist than the director of Reservoir Dogs, projects the energy of a learned, cultured creative, obsessed with finding the truth in their artistic practice.

Director Bong is not like this. Which isn’t to say he plays dumb in interviews — far from it. He’s an insightful and intelligent conversationalist. He’s just entirely uninterested in projecting the myth of the self-serious artist.

Case in point? When his film Parasite garnered a highly sought-after standing ovation at Cannes, he spent his time being applauded complaining about how hungry he was.

He has retained that energy. A few days ago, when asked to reflect what he’d do after garnering his historic Oscar nominations, he said he was planning on slipping out for some Soju.

Of course, that kind of vibe is perfect for a stressful, unpleasant world — it’s a balm. Bong Joon-Ho is a director who speaks truth to power in his art, and who embodies kindness and humility in his life. Who else is better suited to be a hero in times like these?

Joseph Earp is a certified Bong Joon-Ho stan who Tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.