John Hurt, Jamie Bell, and Chris Evans get grimy in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer.
Snowpiercer, the first English-language movie from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, finally premieres in U.S. theaters next week. It’s a crazy, violent, bleakly funny sci-fi story about how in the near future, almost all of humanity’s been wiped out by an accidental, man-made ice age, and the only people left alive are on a high-tech train that circles the globe and never stops. The rich live in luxury up in first class while the poor are clustered in the back surviving off of protein blocks, until one of them, played by Chris Evans, leads a rebellion to try to reach the front, take over the engine, and effect change.
It’s the kind of film you’d put on a shelf next to Brazil and The Matrix, with an international cast that includes Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and more. And if it’s your first encounter with Bong, it shouldn’t be your last — he’s got a handful of earlier movies that show off the same vibrant directing, dark sense of humor, and emotional depth. A filmmaker who plays with genre, he’s made a black comedy, a crime procedural, and a monster movie that subvert all expectations. And they’re all available in the U.S., and absolutely worth braving subtitles for. Here are the CliffsNotes:
3. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
The skinny: If you’re sensitive about on-screen violence involving animals, you’ll want to skip this one. But for hardier or more hardened viewers, Bong Joon-ho’s directorial debut is a pitch-black comedy about two disenfranchised souls bumbling around a large apartment complex who become obsessed with the various dogs owned by tenants. Lee Sung-jae plays Ko Yun-ju, an unemployed grad student who hasn’t been able to make the leap to professor, and whose disdainful, pregnant wife is the main breadwinner. The yapping of a neighbor’s pet and his general sense of ineffectualness drive him to some ugly extremes, and the movie caps them with an even darker punch line involving the building’s janitor. Meanwhile, the downtrodden maintenance worker Park Hyun-nam (Cloud Atlas’s Bae Doona) notices the string of missing canines and strives to be the hero who figures out what’s going on. Barking Dogs Never Bite is a sharply written fable about figures who’ve been left on the outskirts of mainstream society.
4. Memories of Murder (2003)
The skinny: Based on a string of real murders that took place in South Korea in the late ’80s, Bong’s second film is a procedural in which procedure is rarely followed. Song Kang-ho plays Park Doo-man, a detective in a backwater village in which local women start turning up brutally raped and killed, their bodies left in fields and drainage ditches. Park and his colleague Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha) are pompous and foolish — they love watching cop shows on television and attempting to beat confessions out of suspects — but as the terrible crimes continue, they’re joined by Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a slicker policeman from Seoul. Set against the unrest of a country struggling toward democracy and a picturesque rural landscape, Memories of Murder is a riveting depiction of how little the detectives’ crime-solving goes like it would on TV. They’re stymied by lack of resources and clues as well as by their own egos and expectations, but the case takes its toll on the men in different but profound ways. “What kind of detective sleeps well?” Park mutters at one point, his failures and frustrations wearing him down and leaving him a different person than when he began.
Where you can find it: Memories of Murder is available on DVD.
5. The Host (2006)
The skinny: Not to be confused with the Stephenie Meyer adaptation! Song Kang-ho returns to play another lovable doofus in this monster movie that became South Korea’s biggest box office hit of all time. This time he plays Park Gang-du, a bumbler who runs a snack stand with his ragtag, disillusioned relatives, the only promising member of which is his bright young daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung). When a monster emerges from the Han River — alongside which he works — one sunny day, it makes off with Hyun-seo, and the rest of the family is caught up in a panicked government response that has little to do with finding the missing girl. The Host is an unclassifiable mix of comedy, satire, and tragedy, and the monster, a lumbering mutant born from chemicals improperly dumped by an American military base, is a unique creation. Ungainly and hideous, it’s somehow both pathetic and terrifying, and the scene where it first attacks unsuspecting people along the waterfront is staged in a uniquely terrific fashion that can’t be adequately put into words — it just has to be seen.
Where you can find it: The Host is streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video in addition to being on DVD and available for digital rental at most outlets. There’s also a sequel in the works, though Bong is not the director.
6. Tokyo! (2008)
The skinny: Bong Joon-ho directs only one segment of this anthology of three short films from three different filmmakers, all set in title city — and it’s admittedly not as interesting as the other two installments, from Michel Gondry and Leos Carax. But “Shaking Tokyo” is the most visually poetic of the trio, the story of a shut-in (Teruyuki Kagawa) who meets the girl of his dreams (Yū Aoi) when she delivers a pizza to him and the two are brought together by a timely earthquake.
Where you can find it: Tokyo! is on DVD.
7. Mother (2009)
The skinny: Like the opening scene, which you can watch above, Mother starts off like a joke, only to later reveal itself to be something shockingly more profound. The amazing Kim Hye-ja plays the title character, a widow whose name we never learn. She dotes on her grown but childlike son Do-joon (Won Bin), around whom her life revolves, fretting over his every unmonitored moment. When a local high school girl is found murdered, and Do-joon is arrested after evidence points to his being near the scene, she intrepidly sets out to clear his name — Nancy Drew as an adorable middle-aged Korean lady. Her investigation is entertaining, droll, and dangerous, as she uncovers a wealth of dark secrets about the town, but Mother is far more than a novelty crime story. It’s an extremely bittersweet testament to parental love with a kicker of a final scene.