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Bong Joon-ho and Transnational Flow Through Auteurism

Essay by Rocio Guay '25 for Critical Approaches to World Cinema Course

On February 9th, 2020, going up against directors like Mendes, Scorsese, and Tarantino, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (기생충, Bong, South Korea, 2019) won him his first Oscar: Best Original Screenplay. Then he won Best Director. And then, like no non-English language film had done before, Parasite won Best Picture (Giorgis). At the American box office, it made over fifty million dollars (“Box Office Mojo”). There were other marks of his rise in the United States. He went from a small-type mention in the US trailer for Snowpiercer (설국열차, Bong, South Korea/Czech Republic, 2013) (Rotten Tomatoes Trailers) to an implicit introduction as “the visionary director of Snowpiercer” in the trailer for Okja (옥자, Bong, South Korea/United States, 2017) (Netflix), to being introduced as a “Master Filmmaker” less than thirty seconds into the US/Canada trailer for Parasite (NEON). Snowpiercer received a TNT adaptation with Bong tapped for executive producer (Andreeva), and a likewise arrangement for Parasite is in the works with HBO (Kit and Golberg). What’s interesting is that Bong didn’t do this by catering to American markets —his blockbuster monster movie, The Host (괴물, Bong, South Korea, 2006), was back in 2006, and it only made two million dollars in the United States (“Box Office Mojo)—rather he made himself personally desirable to American audiences. An analysis of the four aforementioned films (The Host, Snowpiercer, Okja, Parasite) will not only corroborate this thesis, it will reveal wider implications of transnational flow through auteurism.

Host vs. Parasite: Genre and Specificity

Back in 2006, before he was working with Chris Evans or winning Oscars, Bong Joon-ho directed a blockbuster monster movie, The Host. Yet despite the lowbrow connotations of the genre, the movie isn’t a standard-fare monster rampage. Nam Lee notes in her book, The Films of Bong Joon Ho, that the monster (Oh Dal-su) is both vincible and contained, but the usual heroes of the genre—soldiers, scientists, and leaders—are too busy chasing the protagonists and fabricating a virus hoax (81). Furthermore, Karen Han writes in her book, Bong Joon Ho: Dissident Cinema, that Bong didn’t view the monster as a villain, rather “an unstable of teenager,” and told the animators to model it after the “kinda funny lookin’” Steve Buscemi (85). Instead of an epic about the government wielding its entire might to defend hapless civilians from an unstoppable kaiju, The Host sees an incompetent family attempt to track down a deformed sewer creature while the government runs in circles and gasses people. But no amount of generic subversion and left-wing subtext can change the fact that the movie is still a blockbuster, which carries certain industrial codes. Chris Berry, in his 2003 paper, “‘What’s Big About the Big Film?’” writes about the recent rise in the Korean blockbuster industry, noting that the studios as a whole are making fewer movies, albeit each with more production values and marketing, and that these pricier movies are able to compete with Hollywood in both Korea and export markets (224). Such Hollywood-ness rubs off on The Host. Take the family: they might not be prototypical heroes, but their collective morality is never in doubt, and they each get their moments. Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) and Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung) both make heroic sacrifices, Nam-joo (Bae Doona) ignites the monster with a flaming arrow, Nam-il (Park Hae-il) dramatically escapes an office building full of cops, and Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) slays the monster. Accompanying these sensibilities is what Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk called a “repressive” level of marketing and stranglehold on screens (Howard, 91). Between this and what Nikki J. Y. Lee calls the “international currency” of the nebulously-defined “Asian horror” subgenre in her paper, “‘Asia’ as Regional Signifier and Transnational Genre-Branding” (103), The Host would seem destined for box office domination. And it did dominate, earning over eighty million USD. Only two million came from the United States, however.

Most recently, Bong Joon-ho directed the 2019 film Parasite. While the two films share some actors and a lot of left-wing messaging, Parasite is generically quite different from The Host, with a distinct lack of not only monsters, but heroes. In The Host, Song Kang-ho plays a patriarch who will stop at nothing to save his daughter, ultimately killing the monster terrorizing Seoul. In Parasite, he plays a dad who can’t provide for his family and ultimately murders a wealthy patriarch. The rest of the protagonist family in Parasite is no less ignoble, having planned and executed a scheme to each be hired by a snobbish but gullible family by lying. Han describes the film as having “no clear division between good and evil, hero and villain” (186). The Kims (Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin) are needy but ruthless, the Parks (Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Jung Ji-so, Jung Hyeon-jun) are congenial but elitist, and the housekeeper and her husband (Lee Jung-eun, Park Myung-hoon) are tragic but vicious. Nobody’s hands are clean, yet nobody is outright deplorable either. Parasite also lacks the spectacle of The Host, with its narrative primarily confined to two locations and a small group of people. It is no monster movie blockbuster, and pursuant to such, it only made seventy million USD in South Korea, i.e. less than The Host. Not pursuant to such, it made over fifty million in the United States.

Further complicating matters is that The Host not only has an ostensible generic advantage over Parasite in the United States, it also references the United States more. The origin of the monster was closely based on a real incident in 2000 where, like in the movie, a US military official at a morgue ordered Korean subordinates to dump a large quantity of formaldehyde down drains leading to the Han River (Weaver, Hwang). The virus plotline and the unsubtly-named “Agent Yellow” biocide are commentaries on the United States’ decades-long and often-abusive military presence in South Korea, one which continues to this day and most recently flared up in the form of the Travis King incident (Park). Granted, these aren’t positive depictions of Americans, but the movie does throw America-lovers a bone with the US soldier who loses an arm (and later dies) protecting civilians (David Joseph Anselmo), and at the end of the day, even negative depictions work as a reference point for American audiences to latch onto the movie via. Parasite does not make these gestures towards non-Korean audiences. While one could argue that the movie speaks to the death spasms of late-stage capitalism throughout the developed world as the imperial chickens come home to roost, it specifically addresses “Hell Joseon,” a social phenomenon specific to South Korea which purports that living in South Korea is like living in Hell. Users of the term are also apt to call South Korea “ruined,” and take particular issue with unemployment, class stratification, hopelessness for young people, and the government’s inability to fix anything (Kang). Not only does Parasite confront all of these themes, but it does so in a way that contains them within South Korean specificities, such as Ki-woo’s exam anxieties and the flooding of the Kims’ home. The semi-basement banjihas are also specific to South Korea—so much so that after Parasite came out, the lower-class neighborhood where much of it was filmed was then swarmed with poverty tourists. Even worse, much of this tourism was egged on by local officials, creating a meta-narrative around the film in which the government is again unhelpful and class stratification becomes an exoticism (Ha). The consequences of capitalism may be a global problem, but the particulars of Parasite’s address are unique to South Korea, which makes it all the more fascinating that it did so much better in the United States than The Host.

The “Americanization” of Bong Joon-ho

Something changed between The Host and Parasite. An analysis through genre and cultural specificity would dictate that The Host would be the bigger hit in the United States, yet Parasite made about twenty-five times as much money in the US. How does this happen? Using an auteurist lens, the reasonable conclusion is that Bong Joon-ho, the director of both, was made palatable to American audiences in between their respective releases.

One factor that encouraged American audiences to give Bong’s films a chance was public statements from American filmmakers. Back in 2013, Quentin Tarantino visited the Busan International Film Festival to “to hangout with Bong” and praised him effusively in a subsequent interview (Lee). Tarantino is famously an asiaphile, and in Leon Hunt’s essay, “Asiaphilia, Asianisation and the Gatekeeper Auteur,” he argues that Tarantino operates using a self-serving authorial connoisseurship that reprocesses “Asian trash” into Hollywood “smart cinema” (224). This practice often exploits Asian ideas and creatives, but it also can spread Asian media to American audiences via the guise that it’s similar to or an improvement of Hollywood products. To this end, Tarantino specifically praises Bong as “recreating” genre films, and the author of the article draws parallels between their filmographies (Lee). Hunt also mentions the role of Miramax in the role of reprocessing Asian media for American audiences (224), and Miramax did buy the distribution rights for Snowpiercer in the United States, thereby serving as Harvey Weinstein’s—i.e. an American’s—seal of approval on a foreign film. Then, Weinstein inadvertently gave Bong free advertisement as an auteur in his own right. True to his “Scissorhands” epithet, Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes of Snowpiercer because he felt it wouldn’t appeal to American audiences otherwise, and when Bong refused, Weinstein refused to release the movie in the United States, even as it opened to massive critical and commercial success outside of North America. Thus kicked off a news cycle depicting Bong as an unflinching auteur and Weinstein as the greedy man who wouldn’t let Americans watch the new Chris Evans film (Burr). The fact that Miramax’s limited domain meant that lots of other countries got to see Snowpiercer also decentered the United States as the self-appointed global capital of film, making the act of bringing Snowpiercer to the US for Hollywood-mediated consumption a correction in favor of American hegemony. As such, Bong became acceptable to American audiences through both asiaphiliac connoisseurship and a conflict with the ever-maligned Harvey Weinstein.

Between The Host and Parasite, Bong made two English-language films, Snowpiercer and Okja. Despite being mostly in English, there are Korean characters, and they do speak Korean. Nevertheless, of the twenty-one people listed as starring in either film, fourteen are not Korean, and of those fourteen, all are either American or white. Corollary to this is that except for the Korean contingents, all non-American stars must be white. Gary G. Xu explains in his paper, “Remaking East Asia, Outsourcing Hollywood” that Hollywood remakes of East Asian films recast the characters as white (his example being The Departed (Scorsese, United States, 2006) to enforce “a reduction of the real multiethnic America in favour of a mono-ethnic filmic fantasy” (195). Snowpiercer has a black character (Octavia Spencer), but she is played by an American so as not to disrupt the United States’ hegemony. Both Snowpiercer and Okja star Tilda Swinton, who is British, but she is also white, so her presence does not inhibit the fantasy of a white America. The presence of Koreans is disruptive in both films, both to hegemonic fantasies and within the narratives, but each film manages to cordon off the Korean-ness, both in terms of people and language. In Snowpiercer, the two main Korean characters (Song Kang-ho, Go Ah sung) have to be rescued from the prison car by Chris Evans’ (character’s) party, and are then escorted by the party through the train for the purely strategic reason of unlocking doors. Their matches are important, but until the very end, they merely serve as an appendage of Chris Evans’ crusade. In Okja, the conflict starts when the American company attempts to remove Okja (Lee Jung-eun) from Korea, only for her Korean caretaker, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), to follow along and resist. As such, Okja and Mija both become foreign anomalies that spread chaos when let loose, but can be and are dealt with via imprisonment and removal from public eye. And in both films, the Korean language becomes a hindrance for white characters, albeit one that can be overcome without learning any Korean. In Snowpiercer, Chris Evans can’t communicate with the Koreans he frees, but fortunately there happens to be universal translator devices lying around. In Okja, Mija only knows Korean, and (the character played by) Paul Dano only knows English, but while Mija learns some basic phrases in English, Paul Dano relies on his bilingual co-conspirator (Steven Yeun) to translate. As such, Snowpiercer and Okja made Bong acceptable to American audiences because their use of the English language and white/American faces subsumed the Korean elements.

Okja in particular made Bong American-friendly because unlike Snowpiercer, it was produced in the United States and was primarily distributed by Netflix. Xu writes that the Hollywood trend of remaking East Asian films is so profitable because lower film budgets in East Asia makes it cheap to buy the rights for films that have already proven themselves to be profitable at foreign box offices (195). In essence, Hollywood uses East Asian films as a farm from which it can reappropriate successes for its own use, and while Okja is not a remake, it replicates this strategy. While Hollywood may not have a strong interest in Korean cinema as a whole, within the entirety of Korean cinema is Bong Joon-ho, a proven moneymaker. So, Netflix and Plan B pick up his project, knowing that his ideas are profitable and that his foreignness can be mediated. Okja makes this farming metaphor literal, as the company that created Okja sent their “super piglets” all over the world to be raised according to local practices, with the pig later deemed “best” by a white TV personality to be taken back to the United States as a symbol of the American company’s innovation (Jake Gyllenhaal). Furthermore, Okja was distributed almost exclusively through Netflix, a company with cosmopolitan ambitions. In an era of streaming wars, they have a very real need to demonstrate that they have the very best library, and to do this, they accrue the most marketable talent from across the globe, hence, their partnership with Bong. Such working within the Hollywood system presents Bong Joon-ho as, if not American, then a filmmaker whose works are fit for American audiences, especially because American companies now have a financial interest in propagating this belief. 

Snowpiercer and Okja also popularized Bong Joon-ho in the United States because of their inclusion of American referent. Despite modern failings in public transportation and the East Palestine derailment, trains remain an essential part of the American mythos—one of the nation’s most heralded historical achievements was the transcontinental railroad. So, the most basic premise of Snowpiercer—a giant train on worldwide tracks that chugs along forever—is extremely appealing for American audiences. The train also caters to imperialist fantasies, as its tracks span the globe and it has brought people from all over under the stewardship of a single white American man (Ed Harris). Furthermore, two of the film’s reveals—the protein blocks are made of bugs, and the engine runs on child labor—very directly play off of the American imagination. Americans have always been wary about eating bugs (D’Costa), a sentiment that has recently erupted in the form of bizarre, anti-semetic conspiracy theories (Huo), and child labor was an engine behind the American Gilded Age. Okja too plays with American anxieties, particularly regarding those regarding the ethics of industrial livestock farming, the boundaries of scientific progress, past war crimes, and immigrant labor. Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) desperately wants to be a beloved face of a meatpacking company, the goal of the super pig project was to hide the Mirando Corporation’s use of genetic engineering, Lucy laments her father’s decision to manufacture napalm, and the slaughterhouse is staffed by people who only speak Spanish. Like with The Host, not all of the films’ representations of the United States are necessarily positive, but they are representations nonetheless. They provide reference points upon which American experiences can be mapped, and they speak to American feelings. Thus, Snowpiercer and Okja ingratiated Bong to Americans by speaking their language not only literally, but metaphorically too.

Implications in Transnational Analysis

In her essay, “Transnational Trajectories in Contemporary East Asian Cinemas,” Song Hwee Lim notes that the translingualism of East Asian directors working in English yields an “exotic transnationalism” with “a sense of cosmopolitanism” (18). From the orientalist point of view he describes, Parasite represents a regression: Bong Joon-ho stopped making films in English for our own curiosity to make a film in Korean with little reference to the United States. Therefore, the success of Parasite in the United States suggests that Bong’s American auteur status enables transnational flow in part by displacing the exoticism of language onto him. Instead of the cosmopolitan appeal being a foreign director working in the domestic language, the appeal is the director being foreign enough to be a curiosity, but sufficiently “domesticized” to be palatable. In his manifesto, “For an Abusive Subtitling,” Abé Mark Nornes differentiates between “corrupt” and “abusive” subtitles. In corrupt subtitles, “All that cannot be explained within the severe limits of the regulation subtitle gets excised or reduced to domestic meanings.” Conversely, a translator for abusive subtitles “cedes the particular powers of his own culture to accomplish a translation that invites the reader/spectator to a novel and rich experience of the foreign” (29). For a corrupt translation, see The Host: The father’s name is translated into English as “Gang-du,” but the demonstrators against Agent Yellow wear shirts reading “FREE PARK KANG DOO.” The shirts are meant to be read by English-speaking audiences, as indicated by the “FREE,” yet there is a discrepancy between his names. This represents an excision in translation, as something was lost between his name romanized by Koreans in the diegesis and his name romanized for American audiences. For Parasite, however, Bong took advantage of his auteur status in the United States to work with his subtitler, Darcy Paquet, to create abusive subtitles. There is no direct translation into English for the Korean dish jjapaguri, but rather than leave it untranslated and let its meaning dissipate, they made up a new word: “ram-don,” a portmanteau of ramen and udon (Rochlin). Forcing a word into the English language to defer to Korean meanings is already abusive, but there’s more. Nornes describes how anime fan subtitling abuses convention through varied fonts, irregular placement, and non-dialogue subtitles (32). Bong and Paquet go further. In the English cut of Parasite, they’ve added an extra shot showing the ramen and udon instant noodle packages to show the English-speaking audience where the word “ram-don” comes from. Such is the ultimate abuse, supplementing using not only words, but entire frames to bring the translated audience to the film’s language of origin. In Parasite, Bong doesn’t only move away from the English language, he subordinates it to Korean, and he still made fifty million dollars in the United States. This is what transnational flow through auteurism can do. Having already proved himself worthy of American viewership, Bong no longer needs to work with or for the English language.

A more tangible implication is that Bong Joon-ho’s American ascension is a huge win for the South Korean government. One of the things Shekhar Deshpande and Meta Mazaj cover in their book, World Cinema: A Critical Introduction, is the notion of a “small” national cinema, where “small” denotes either the size of the nation or the size of its cinematic output (329). For South Korea, the former definition applies. Transnational cinematic flow is a question not only of cinema, but the power dynamics between nations, which affect not only the flow itself, but the discourses surrounding it. Thus, small cinemas like South Korea’s face what Deshpande and Mazaj refer to as “a struggle to carve out a visible spot and stage oneself, to narrate oneself through film,” particularly in the “emerging contexts of globalization” (330). The South Korean government has long fought this struggle. In 1999, they established the Korean Film Council, which not only funds and protects the domestic industry, but sponsors film festivals and English publications to promote Korean cinema abroad (Deshpande and Mazaj, 93). Returning to Xu’s piece, while the influence of East Asian cinema on Hollywood via remakes is undeniable, such remakes do not let East Asian nations self-narrate; “the remakes are completely severed from the original ethnic soil and become solely the product of Hollywood homogenisation” (195). Globalization has caused an unprecedented flow of ideas, but simply pouring their ideas into the Hollywood meat grinder is not enough for small cinemas. To carve out their own spot, they must be the ones to wield them. Hence, the boon of Bong. It might be hard to sell the United States on South Korean cinema as a whole, but by acting as a transnational auteur, he sold the US on himself. Then, when Parasite came out, its domination of both the box office and the Oscars didn’t only bring acclaim to Bong, it made all of South Korean cinema more globally visible than ever. When a small cinema’s auteur goes transnational, they can become conduits of visibility.

Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim write in their article, “Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies,” that critical transnationalism “interrogates how these film-making activities negotiate with the national on all levels” (18). For Bong Joon-ho, his work on Snowpiercer and Okja necessitates an interrogation of how he negotiates with the multinational. Deshpande and Mazaj place Snowpiercer in the “prestige film” category of transnational cinema, citing its attempt towards universality (357). However, universality should not be conflated with homogeneity, for the film does grapple with the legacy of nation-states against the enforced singularity of the train. For Wilford, the train is a utopian vision of globalization: A map shows its route spans five continents, and there are universal translators to accommodate linguistic divides. However, the train is only important due to the CW-7 dispersal, which occurred despite protests from developing countries. Okja too negotiates with the multinational. Mirando purports itself to be an American country, taking back Okja from rural Korea to throw a Macy’s-esque parade in the streets of New York City, but acts such as the super pig contest or their manufacturing of napalm indicate a willingness to involve themselves wherever money dictates. Mija’s final confrontation—over a Korean pig, in an American slaughterhouse, next to an Hispanic worker, and with a businesswoman who had been staying in London (Tilda Swinton)—demonstrates a deep insecurity of what a nation constitutes. Theoretically, Parasite should’ve allowed Bong to return to questions of a single nation. The South Korean nation, however, is unique in its push for globalization. Jeeyoung Shin writes in “Globalisation and New Korean Cinema” that “no state in the post-Cold War era has embraced globalisation as publicly as South Korea under the Kim Young-sam administration,” citing the “segyehwa” (translating literally as “world turning into”) policy, which was “committed to a fulfillment of national advancement” (53). Bong fulfilled this national advancement via Snowpiercer and Okja; a South Korean auteur had staked their claim in Hollywood. But transnationalism is not a one-way street. In becoming a conduit for South Korea’s globalist ambitions, Bong made the version of the South Korean nation with which he must negotiate a global one. The original occupants of the big house moved to France. The new ones are from Germany. Moon-gwang imitates a North Korean news anchor. Mr. Park’s tech company is named, “Another Brick,” which not only uses a lingua franca, but is a reference to the English band Pink Floyd. Even when the film is set almost entirely in two homes, there is no more escaping transnational movements. Such is a consequence of transnational cinematic flow via the creation of a transnational auteur: a fundamental transformation in how the filmmaker negotiates with their nation.


There were many factors behind Bong Joon-ho’s rise in America. Asiaphiles like Tarantino praised him, making his work desirable as an oriental commodity. Weinstein caused a distribution brouhaha that turned Snowpiercer into a forbidden fruit for Americans. The dominance of the English language and white and/or American actors in Snowpiercer and Okja appealed to the fantasy of a homogenous, hegemonic America. Working with companies based in the United States like Netflix packaged Bong’s Korean influences within an American exterior. Addressing topics close to the United States, like trains and livestock farming, gave American audiences a way to latch onto his work. And in becoming an auteur within the United States, Bong did more than make money or win awards. He made himself, not just his films in English, cosmopolitan, and he made some incredibly abusive subtitles. South Korea’s small cinema wields a large global influence through him. The transnationalism of his English-language productions has seeped into his filmmaking negotiations with the South Korean nation. Bong Joon-ho made himself into an auteur to Americans, opening up a new pipeline for transnational cinematic flow, a pipeline with far-reaching consequences.


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