South Korean director Bong Joon Ho is one of the most original filmmakers of the last two decades. His work usually blends genre premises with withering humor and social commentary. Bong’s debut feature Barking Dogs Never Bite established him as a cult director. More international success followed with 2013’s Snowpiercer and Okja in 2017, and his 2019 film Parasite won the Best Picture Oscar.
Online and in interviews, Bong has shared some of his favorite movies. His picks include a lot of Japanese and South Korean films that were popular in their home countries, but might not be that well-known by Western viewers. His recommendations are sure to include some gems, especially for fans of Bong’s own work.
Asako (Erika Karata), a young woman in Kyoto, meets the handsome, charming Baku (Masahiro Higashide) and falls in love at first sight. But after a night together, Baku vanishes. Two years later, Asako meets Ryohei (Masahiro Higashide), a man who looks identical to Baku. But they are clearly not the same. Where Baku is confident and cool, Ryohei is awkward and reserved. But the physical resemblance is enough for Asako, who starts dating Ryohei, without telling him about Baku.
Asako I & II is a slow-paced, beautifully-shot romance drama from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who scored a Best Director Oscar nomination for last year Drive My Car. In light of Hamagunchi’s international success, now is as good a time as any to dive into his filmography.
This classic Japanese film tells the story of a remote village where food is in short supply and the villagers can not afford to look after their elderly. So, according to tradition, when villagers turn 70, they are taken to the summit of Mount Narayama and left to die. The film focuses on one village elder, Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), as her 70th birthday approaches.
The Ballad of Narayamais directed by Keisuke Kinoshitaa contemporary of Akira Kurosawa. Kinoshita employs costumes and sets through the film that are inspired by kabuki, a traditional Japanese theater form known for its elaborate makeup. The result is a gorgeous exercise in traditional storytelling. The film was digitally restored in 2012, so viewers can enjoy its lush cinematography and set design in high definition.
Life is Sweet is a comedy drama from Mike Leigh, a giant of British cinema. Its ensemble cast includes several English A-listers and future Harry Potter stars: Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis and Alison Steadmanto name a few.
Like a lot of Leigh’s movies, Life is Sweet follows the everyday struggles of a few characters living in a working-class London suburb. The script was improvised with the cast over several weeks, lending the film a realistic quality. It’s funny too, with Timothy Spall delivering several great lines. Life is Sweet was well-reviewed on release, but these days it is not one of Leigh’s most well-known works.
Intentions of Murder (also known as Unholy Desire) is a brutal film about survival. Masumi Harukawa stars as Sadako, a young woman who is mistreated by her husband (Kō Nishimura) and his family. While her husband is away, a burglar (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) breaks in and attacks Sadako. The attacker becomes obsessed with her and returns several times over the following weeks, so Sadako devises a plan to murder him.
Director Shōhei Imamura was an influential Japanese director and a leading figure in the Japanese New Wave from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Intentions of Murder is emblematic of his filmography, boasting an experimental narrative structure and themes of violence, domestic life and individual determination.
Wendy (Michelle Williams) travels to Alaska in the hopes of finding a job, but loses her dog Lucy along the way. The film chronicles her attempts to track down her pet, although the plot is secondary to the performances and imagery.
Bong singled out Wendy and Lucy‘s opening tracking shot for praise, calling it “one of the most beautiful opening scenes in the history of the movies.” Michelle Williams and director Kelly Reichardt‘s latest collaboration Showing Up premiered at Cannes earlier this year and is set to go into wide release in late 2022.
Sorry We Missed You is a drama from British director Ken Loach. It focuses on a young father (Kris Hitchen) struggling to make a living in the gig economy, and his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) who is a carer for the elderly.
Like Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You is a well-crafted drama boasting authentic performances and a smart script. Loach’s work is known for its social commentary, usually from a leftist perspective, and that’s the case here as well. It’s no surprise that Bong is a Loach fan, as Bong’s own Parasite takes a similarly scathing approach to poverty and social conflict.
This French indie drama by filmmaker Audrey Diwan won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice International Film Festival and was well-reviewed, but many viewers might not have heard of it. Happening takes place in 1963, when abortion was illegal in France. Anna (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a young student worrying about her social life and the upcoming exams – until she unexpectedly falls pregnant.
Happening explores many issues which are once again at the forefront of the culture wars. It’s a deft piece of filmmaking, boasting a great performance from Vartolomei and a nuanced script. That it is French and not American gives it a unique perspective, too. Many viewers are sure to find it relevant and resonant.
This documentary centers on three women who fought for better workplace conditions in the 1970s. They all worked for textile companies in South Korea, where employees as young as 13 endured 12-hour shifts in cramped workspaces for little pay. The textile industry was a big part of South Korea’s economic boom, but was notorious for its exploitation of workers.
The film draws on archival footage and news interviews with workers and activists to bring their stories to life. It shines a light on a fascinating period in South Korean history which has parallels with similar labor movements the world over.
Happy Hour is another drama from Drive My Car director Ryusuke Hamaguchi. It centers on four female friends living in Kobe, Japan. One of them gets entangled in a messy divorce, which puts their friendship to the test. Happy Hour is over five hours long, giving the cast ample space to explore their characters. The viewer also gets to know these characters intimately, which might be the movie’s main strength.
The narrative ebbs and flows at a snail’s pace, which certainly won’t appeal to everyone but which does give Hamaguchi free rein to delve into a variety of themes and subplots. The result is a detailed portrait of modern Japanese society, with a focus on class and gender issues.
This film tells the story of real-life serial killer Akira Nishiguchi (although he is called Enokizu in the film), who murdered five people in Japan in the 1960s. Police launched a massive manhunt for Enokizu which lasted several months before he was finally apprehended. Vengeance is Mine examines Enokizu’s entire life, including his childhood in the 1930s and his years as a fraudster after World War II.
Vengeance is Mineis another movie by influential Japanese director Shōhei Imamura. Once again, Imamura’s fascination with violence and psychology is on display. He goes to great lengths to show the various influences that created Enokizu: his strict Catholic upbringing, his father’s mistreatment at the hands of the navy, his loveless marriage. But the film also suggests that none of these factors is sufficient to explain Enokizu’s coldness and lack of remorse. Vengeance is Mine is a dark, brutal story along the lines of In Cold Blood and American Psycho. Bong included it among his ten all-time favorites.
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