South Korean film maker Bong Joon-ho fist pumps, with Palme d'Or in hand, after his Cannes triumph. Photo: AFP

Bong Joon-ho became the first South Korean director to walk away with the biggest prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Parasite, a tragi-comedy of the deepest black which explores the gap between haves and have nots.

“It’s the 100th anniversary of cinema in Korea this year,” Bong told the Cannes crowd on Saturday as he hefted the Palme d’Or. “I think that Cannes has given Korean cinema a great gift.”

Master genre-bender

The win – reportedly a unanimous decision by the Cannes jury – garnered an eight-minute standing ovation, and praise from none other than South Korean President Moon Jae-in. “The status of hallyu culture has risen one step higher,” Moon tweeted. “It is a very honorable event and [I] am profusely delighted with the award win, as are so many Koreans who love our movies.”

While carefully-choreographed K-pop bands and syrupy K-dramas have proved the most popular elements of hallyu – the “Korean wave” of pop culture that has pounded Asian shores for two decades and is currently sinking deep footholds into Western markets – films have garnered the most critical kudos overseas.

Bong is a rare beast in the Korean (and global) film world: He is adored by critics for his technical craft and for his riffs on social issues, but is equally loved by audiences for works that include enough wit and bite to suck crowds into multiplexes, while trampling over genre classification.

His victory in Cannes places him – in terms of film-fest trophies, at least – over other Korean master directors. Park Chan-wook’s brutal noir thriller Old Boy (2003) won a chest-full of awards, including Canne’s Grand Prix, while Kim Ki-duk is a darling of film festivals, though some critics have professed distaste for the sadistic violence at the heart of so many of his works.

Parasite is classic Bong at the top of his genre-bending game. It is about two poverty-struck siblings who worm their way into a rich household, but while it includes laugh-out-loud moments, at its heart, it resounds with the battle cry of class warfare.

Monster eels, giant pigs and serial killers

Even prior to his big win in Cannes, Bong’s mastery of his craft had won him international projects.

He helmed the dystopian sci-fi epic Snow Piercer (2013), which generated controversy when Harvey Weinstein sought to edit it down to more of a straight actioner than Bong, who had spiced the film with generous dashings of class commentary, had intended. That editorial intervention drew rebukes from the movie’s villainous lead, British thespian Tilda Swinton, who argued forcefully for Bong’s version. Swinton also appeared as a villain in Bong’s Okja (2017), a Netflix fantasy about a girl and a giant pig.

At home, Bong had first shot to fame with 2003’s Memories of Murder, seen as one of the earliest of Korea’s new wave movies. A thriller that, at face value, covered a police investigation into a serial murder, the gorgeously shot flick was also a harsh critique of the practices of the country’s authoritarian past.

However, perhaps his most famous film domestically is The Host (2006) about a man-eating, mutant monster eel that appears in Seoul’s Han River and wreaks havoc as it feasts on citizens in riverside parks. The Host is no Godzilla. Though the film succeeds as a straight horror movie, it is also a social comedy exploring dysfunctional family dynamics and a comment on power politics. (The beast is created as a result of the US Army in Korea dumping chemicals into the river.)

“Bong has his own style, which is Korean society – though a bit twisted – and his sense of humor, which is unique,” Seoul-based independent film-maker Song Eun-joo told Asia Times.  “In my experience, [film] investors’ power is very big, but he has his own style which he never gives up on.  Everyone in the industry is jealous of him!”

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