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Bong Joon-ho Could Be the New Steven Spielberg

With ‘Okja,’ the ‘Snowpiercer’ director is approaching questions of scientific discovery and authority with a childlike wonder and visual panache, not unlike the man behind ‘E.T.’ and ‘Jurassic Park’

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

A thought experiment: If you were a Hollywood executive and you had access to the dinosaur-cloning technology from Jurassic Park (let’s say you paid off Wayne Knight to give you the access code to the laboratory) and you could make a carbon copy of any filmmaker in history to sign to a lifetime studio contract, who would it be?

If the intention is to put more great art into the world, then it would be reasonable to answer by saying Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford or Jean-Luc Godard or Luis Buñuel. If you were hoping to kick-start a massive new franchise, it’d make sense to craft a DNA sequence yielding a twin for George Lucas or James Cameron. If it’s a good time at the bar you’re after, punch in "John Huston" and stand back. Let’s be real, though: Considering that you’re already a guest at Isla Nublar — and that he has a patent on the cloning machine and the cheerful cartoon that explains how it works — chances are that you’re going to answer "Steven Spielberg" and call it a day.

Plenty of directors have either chased the "next Spielberg" label or had it thrust upon them. Who can forget seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s face peering nervously off the cover of Newsweek beneath a headline calling him exactly that? In recent years, critics have made the case for other neo-Spielbergian doppelgängers, including Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson, and Denis Villeneuve, while both J.J. Abrams (Super 8) and Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) have crafted Amblin-style entertainments pitched somewhere between loving homage and flagrant copyright infringement.

Quentin Tarantino, whose shift into lavish-historical-drama mode is itself a bit Spielbergian (Lincoln and The Hateful Eight would make for one hell of a double bill), named his candidate several years ago: the South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho. "Of all the filmmakers out there in the last 20 years," Tarantino told The Hollywood Reporter, "[Bong] has something that [1970s] Spielberg has." If nothing else, QT knows movies, and it’s easy to detect many of Spielberg’s strengths in Bong’s work. Back in 2006, his brilliant creature feature The Host was likened to Jaws: It was a comic thriller with a buoyant, yet ruthless spirit.

With this in mind, Bong’s new Netflix-produced adventure movie, Okja, which debuted to excellent reviews and mild industry controversy at Cannes, has been billed as his E.T. — a gentle, crowd-pleasing tale of interspecies friendship. But Okja is also very much Bong’s Jurassic Park. The title character is a genetically modified, hippopotamus-sized super-pig, and the film — which features Hollywood stars such as Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Tilda Swinton opposite 13-year-old Korean actress Ahn Seo-hyun — is a cautionary tale about what happens when corporate powers start splicing first and asking questions later.

This reflexive distrust of authority is a key difference between Bong and Spielberg, the latter of whose films are often about the importance of thinking inside the box (remember the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the destructive power of the Old Testament God safely remanded to the custody of the United States military?). The crux of the contrast is cultural: Where Spielberg grew up and out of post–World II America (think of the beneficent Norman Rockwell backdrop evoked in so many of his movies), Bong came of age in an era of military dictatorships and martial law. His first two features are both shrewd, startlingly funny studies of the psychology of subjugation. In Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), a depressed apartment dweller becomes so annoyed at the sound of his neighbor’s pet that he contrives to kill the poor thing, exercising a power denied to him in the other areas of his life. The universal taboo of animal murder (Spielberg killed a dog early on in Jaws to show that he wasn’t fucking around) bumps up against a very specific, very Korean comedy of urban alienation.

There’s an even more sinister sense of social desperation lurking in Memories of Murder (2003), a contender for the best serial killer thriller of the century. Its combination of epic scope, procedural detail, and subliminal terror rivals even Zodiac.

Set in 1986 in a small town far from Seoul, the film reworks the details of South Korea’s first serial killer case to suggest that in a country where orders are given from the top down, all kinds of aberrant behaviors bubble up underneath. The joke is that even in a tiny, rural community there are so many potential suspects that the cops can’t get their bearings, and some shapeless, vaporous menace can waft through the country air.

As a contemplation of an insidious evil hiding in plain sight, Memories of Murder is disturbing stuff, but its grimness exists as a counterpoint to a wild, almost slapstick sense of humor — a bold mix of tones that can seem confounding if you’re not on the director’s wavelength. In both Memories of Murder and the pitch-black 2009 comedy Mother — a diabolically funny riff on Psycho about a matriarch trying to clear the name of her son, who has a mental disability, while amassing her own rap sheet — Bong shows a daunting command of suspense mechanics, only to keep throwing wrenches into the works.

The director’s showmanship is even more spectacular in The Host and Snowpiercer, his two most popular movies to date, both tales of scientific engineering gone awry. The point of both movies is that the people in charge are not to be trusted. In The Host, a massive, kaiju-style monster is created as a byproduct of Yankee military personnel dumping toxic chemicals in the Han River in Seoul — a pithy critique of U.S. military presence in South Korea in a movie that nevertheless takes many of its visual cues and allusions from American cinema. (The grotesque, amphibious mutant itself was famously modeled on Steve Buscemi in Fargo.) The scene where the creature lays waste to dozens of civilians in broad daylight is one of the most jaw-dropping action set pieces of recent years, not only for its casual brutality but also the intricately choreographed dance between the actors, the camera (which, like the monster, never stops charging forward), and chunky, but charming CGI special effects.

The Host’s critical and commercial success paved the way for Bong to make Snowpiercer, an expensive international coproduction action movie set in the midst of a new ice age created by meddling climate scientists. A unique blend of claustrophobia and momentum, Snowpiercer takes place entirely inside a gigantic high-speed train designed to circle around the tundra. Inside, the last remnants of humanity have been gathered and divided into compartments corresponding to their economic status. As the movie goes along, the poor souls huddled at the back, led by Chris Evans, fight their way to the front for an audience with the train’s enigmatic architect. Working in live-action comic book mode, Bong skillfully intertwines action and allegory, elegantly visualizing global class struggle as a relentless side-scrolling video game, with each level guarded by a different bad guy, including Tilda Swinton as a toothy dictator who looks and sounds an awful lot like Margaret Thatcher.

Onscreen, in Snowpiercer, the heroes’ battles against authority figures are rousing, exciting stuff. Off screen was a different story. When Snowpiercer was bought for distribution by the Weinstein Company, Bong entered into exclusive company with Martin Scorsese, James Gray, and Wong Kar-wai, as a visionary, uncompromising filmmaker whose work was at the mercy of "Harvey Scissorhands." The famously combative producer proposed lopping 20 minutes off of a movie that had broken box-office records in South Korea and packed them in in France, supposedly because he was worried that American audiences wouldn’t get it. When Bong blanched, Weinstein scaled back the size of the film’s release to art houses and VOD, the film-distro equivalent of cutting off one’s nose to spite their face.

Bong has been diplomatic about his experiences with Snowpiercer — which ended up making nearly $90 million worldwide — but the fact that Netflix was willing to offer him carte blanche creatively for Okja was an obvious selling point in working with the digital streaming giant. "Netflix guaranteed my complete freedom in terms of putting together my team and the final-cut privilege, which only godlike filmmakers such as Spielberg get," he told Variety, modestly acknowledging his privilege while trying the comparison on for size. Calling Bong the next Spielberg is reductive for any number of reasons. Better to say that he’s well on his way toward being the sort of filmmaker who inspires his own imitators — the mark of a true original.