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Bong Joon-ho’s rise to the top of cinema world: ‘Parasite’ director goes from fan to Korea’s first Oscar winner

Feb 12,2020
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[AFP/YONHAP]
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Director Bong Joon-ho on the set of his film “Memories of Murder” (2003). [ILGAN SPORTS]
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Director Bong Joon-ho’s long-time fans have always insisted that Bong’s films are uniquely refreshing, a point that Indiewire Senior Film Critic David Ehrlich picked up on last spring when he noted that the director was “a genre unto himself” in his review of “Parasite.” After winning four Oscars on Sunday night, Bong’s genre-defying work has surely made its mark on a global stage.

Bong jumped over the “one-inch barrier of subtitles” that he mentioned during his acceptance speech at the Golden Globe last month, and “Parasite” is a phenomenon that film critics and audiences around the world are crazy about.

So who is Bong and how did he become the renowned filmmaker behind a movie that was awarded both the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture?

Bong’s achievements have been possible through his passion and effort, but his artistic ability may have been inherent, as the director was born into a family of prestigious artists. Bong’s father was Bong Sang-gyun, a well-regarded graphic and industrial designer. Bong’s maternal grandfather Park Tae-won (1909-1986) was a famous author during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), best known for his novel “A Day in the Life of Gubo the Novelist.”

Bong began dreaming of becoming a director as a middle school student, when he became an avid reader of film magazines Screen and Road Show. The first steps he took into the filmmaking business was when he returned to college after completing his military service and established a film club named Yellow Moon. Bong majored in Sociology at Yonsei University.

His first movie was a short film titled “White Man” that he wrote and directed in 1994. He entered the Korean Academy of Film Arts in 1995 and was active as an assistant director and screenwriter until 1999.

Although his debut feature film “Barking Dogs Never Bite” (2000), a black comedy about a missing dog case in an apartment building, won him the High Hopes Award at the 19th Munich Film Festival in 2001 and the Fipresci (The International Film Critics Federation) Award at the 25th Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2001, the film failed to become a commercial success in local theaters.

“I talked with my wife in 1998 and gained her permission to work on my first film for a year,” Bong said in an MBC special documentary that aired last June. “I told her that I had just enough money saved up to last us for a year, and she said, ‘Fine, even if we starve, go do it.’”

(On Sunday evening, Bong dedicated the Best Original Screenplay award to his wife, Jung Sun-young. Jung and Bong met on the set of his four-part student film “Incoherence,” on which Jung was a staff member. They married in 1995.)

Cha Seung-jae, the CEO of film production company Sidus, saw Bong’s potential and collaborated with the director to create “Memories of Murder” (2003), which sold over 5.2 million tickets, a major success in the local film industry at the time.

At a press conference held after the director returned from the Cannes Film Festival last May, Bong singled out “Memories of Murder” as his “guide and inspiration to avoid the typical Hollywood-style thriller.” It’s also the film where he first met and worked with his muse, actor Song Kang-ho. The director would continue to work with Song steadily over the years. Song has appeared in four of Bong’s seven feature films, including “The Host” (2006), “Snowpiercer” (2013) and “Parasite” (2019).

A nickname that the director has earned over the years is “Bongtail,” a compound word from “Bong” and “detail” that people in the local film industry gave because of his meticulous attention to detail.

“Bong is not the charismatic type on set,” film critic Kim Hyung-seok said, recalling his time covering the filmmaking process of “Murder.”

“The director was more like a kind teacher who explains everything thoroughly in a calm voice.”

After “Memories of Murder,” Bong achieved one success after another through his movies.

“The Host” became Korea’s best-selling movie at the time after selling more than 10 million ticket sales at the local box office.

In 2013, Bong worked with Hollywood stars Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell and more on “Snowpiercer.” The film became the most distributed local film as its distribution rights were sold to over 167 countries. Bong set the record again with “Parasite,” which was sold to over 192 countries worldwide.

The filmmaker worked with a Hollywood cast for the second time in the Netflix produced film “Okja” (2017), which also competed for the Palme d’Or at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

The director’s success now leaves the world curious about what’s coming up next for the famed filmmaker. At a press conference held backstage at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday night, Bong told the Korean journalists that he “has a plan.”

“I have two films that I had been preparing,” Bong said. “One is in Korean, and I’m also writing one in English. The Korean film is [in the horror genre] set in Seoul. The latter one isn’t a large-scale film, with a budget similar to ‘Parasite.’ It’s based on a real story that happened in London in 2016.”

BY LEE JI-YOUNG, LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]



"원래 좀 이상한 사람" 봉준호, 이젠 하나의 장르가 됐다


봉준호(51) 감독은 “하나의 장르가 됐다”고 평가받는 감독이다. 기존의 장르 규칙을 따르지 않고 한 작품 안에서 여러 장르를 뒤섞는 과감한 상상력을 발휘한다. “난 원래 좀 이상한 사람”(9일 아카데미 시상식 직후 열린 백스테이지 인터뷰에서)이라며 그 스스로 인정하는 독창성이다. 여기에다 사회 현실에 대한 예리한 비판 의식, ‘봉테일(봉준호+디테일)’이란 별명에 걸맞는 치밀한 구성을 더해 ‘봉준호’란 장르를 만들어냈다. 평단과 관객, 모두를 열광시키는 새로운 장르다.

중학교 때 ‘스크린’ ‘로드쇼’ 등의 영화 잡지를 보며 영화 감독을 꿈꿨다는 그는 군 복무를 마치고 복학(연세대 사회학과)해 ‘노란문’이라는 영화 동아리를 만들며 본격적으로 영화 인생에 발을 디뎠다. 그의 첫 작품으로 기록되는 단편 ‘백색인’(1993)은 동아리 시절 극본을 쓰고 연출한 영화다. 이후 한국영화아카데미에 11기로 들어갔고, 1999년까지 충무로에서 조연출과 시나리오 작가로 활동했다. 장편 데뷔작은 어느 아파트 단지의 개 실종 사건을 그린 블랙코미디 ‘플란다스의 개’(2000). 그에게 뮌헨국제영화제 신인감독상, 홍콩국제영화제 국제영화비평가상 등을 안겨준 작품이었지만 흥행은 실패였다. 하지만 이 작품을 제작한 싸이더스 차승재 대표는 손실을 보고도 봉 감독의 가능성을 포기하지 않았다. 다시 그와 손을 잡고 2003년 ‘살인의 추억’을 제작, 525만 관객을 모으는 큰 성공을 거뒀다.

‘살인의 추억’은 봉 감독이 지난해 칸 영화제 직후 귀국 기자회견에서 “전형적인 할리우드식 스릴러를 피해온 것이 내 동력이자 호흡 방식”이라면서 그 출발점으로 꼽은 작품이다. 그와 ‘괴물’ ‘설국열차’ ‘기생충’ 등 도합 네 편의 작품을 함께 한 배우 송강호와 첫 호흡을 맞춘 작품이기도 하다. ‘살인의 추억’ 당시 촬영 현장 취재를 했던 김형석 영화저널리스트는 “봉 감독은 현장에서 카리스마 스타일은 아니다. 차분한 목소리로 친절하게 설명을 잘해주는 선생님 같았다”고 회고했다.

이후 그의 이력은 신기록 행진이다. 2006년 ‘괴물’로 1301만 관객을 모으며 당시 역대 흥행 신기록을 달성했고, 2013년 다국적 프로젝트로 제작한 ‘설국열차’는 167개국에 판매돼 역대 한국영화 최다 판매 기록을 세웠다. 2017년 ‘옥자’는 스트리밍 업체 넷플릭스가 제작비 전액을 투자한 영화로 세계 영화계의 주목을 받았다. 칸 영화제 황금종려상, 아카데미 4관왕을 이룬 ‘기생충’(2019)의 신기록 행진은 아직도 진행 중이다.

그는 예술가 집안으로도 유명하다. 2017년 작고한 그의 아버지는 우리나라 1세대 그래픽 디자이너인 봉상균씨, 외할아버지는 『소설가 구보씨의 일일』『천변풍경 』 등을 쓴 박태원(1909∼1986) 작가다. 형은 봉준수 서울대 영문과 교수, 누나는 패션디자이너이자 연성대 패션산업과 교수인 봉지희씨다. 봉 감독이 9일 아카데미 각본상 수상 무대에서 “언제나 많은 영감을 주는 아내에게 감사한다”며 언급한 아내는 그의 한국영화아카데미 졸업 작품인 ‘지리멸렬’(1994)에 스태프로 참여했던 정선영씨. 1995년 결혼했다. 2017년 YG케이플러스의 웹무비 ‘결혼식’을 연출한 봉효민 감독이 이들의 아들이다.

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