South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has often mentioned Alfred Hitchcock, Guillermo del Toro, Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa among the directors who have had the greatest influence on his filmmaking. Yet, he never mentioned the name of Fritz Lang. What do these two authors actually have in common?
Today as yesterday?
It happened in 2019 that at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, South Korean director Bong Jooh-ho was awarded the Palme d’Or, with a unanimous vote, for Parasite, by public and critics alike a true sensation and a film that, in one way or another, managed to bring together practically everyone, both lovers of arthouse and mainstream cinema. But this, in fact, was only the beginning. Parasite, in fact, would gain, only a few months later, no less than six Oscar nominations, winning four of them, including Best Picture (the first non-English language film to win such an award) and Best International Feature Film.
While, therefore, many got to know Bong Jooh-ho thanks to this film of his, there are also those who have been familiar with him for about twenty years, even claiming that some of his earlier films are even better than the successful Parasite. In any case, the director has managed to find his own, distinctive style, giving his films their own, marked personality each time. A great fan of cinema of the past, Bong Joon-ho has often mentioned Alfred Hitchcock, Guillermo del Toro, Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa among the directors who have had the greatest influence on his filmmaking. Yet, he never mentioned the name of Fritz Lang. What do these two filmmakers have in common? If we take a look at two important films by the Taegu director, such as, for instance, Parasite and Memories of Murder (2003), we can notice that in terms of approach and themes these feature films have much more in common with Lang’s cinema than it might initially seem.
Parasite, in fact, tells the story of the Kim family, who, after living for years in a shabby basement and in dire financial straits, manage, through a series of deceptions, to occupy the luxurious mansion of the Park family, taking advantage of the fact that the house owners have gone on holiday. Following a series of mishaps and unforeseen events, however, the head of the family Kim Ki-taek (played by Song Kang-ho) will remain locked in a bunker of the villa, unknown even to the owners, while his family, aware that the Park family were about to return early from their holiday, has managed to escape. Kim Ki-taek’s fate, it seems, is to live ‘underground’, as he has already done for many years and as he will have to continue to do for a long time to come. And so we see in Parasite a clear division between two worlds: the underground world (inhabited by those living on the margins of society) and the world above ground, where the rich are the absolute rulers. What does this division remind us of?
And here our own Fritz Lang comes into play. In his masterpiece Metropolis (1927), the legendary Austrian director, in showing us the eternal conflict between bosses and workers, staged a clear division between two worlds: in the underground world, the workers move almost like automatons, like lobotomised beings, with the sole purpose of working tirelessly to enrich the powerful, who, on the other hand, live in the surface world, where luxury and well-being seem to be commonplace. Is it possible, then, that Bong Joon-ho had Metropolis in mind when making his Parasite? Of this, of course, we are not sure. Yet, Fritz Lang’s feature film, as we all know, was a source of inspiration for many, many works made in the following decades (including Blade Runner and Star Wars, just to name a few).
If, on the other hand, we try to examine the already mentioned Memories of Murder (adaptation of the play Come to See Me by Kim Kwang-lim), we find important parallels with another great masterpiece of film history made by Lang: M (1931). M is remembered not only for Lang’s extraordinary experiments with sound and off-screen (setting rules that are still followed today all over the world), but also for a merciless yet realistic analysis of humanity, as a result of which emerged the theory that we are all potential murderers, perfectly in line, in turn, with the canons of Expressionism, which had theorised over and over again on the duality of the human being itself.
In Memories of Murder, then, events kick off with the discovery of the corpse of a woman, brutally raped and murdered. Detective Park Du-man (also played by Song Kang-ho) is absolutely obsessed with the investigation. And not even with the passage of time and a new profession will he be able to accept the fact that he never found out who the murderer was. Once again, therefore, the director has conveyed to us the thesis that the murderer could be practically anyone and that the duality in human beings is something we all have in common. Just as Lang theorised in his time. But again, therefore, we do not know how much the Viennese director influenced Bong Joon-ho and whether he did so directly or indirectly.
The fact is that we can see how certain theories and directorial approaches of the past often manage to find their own, important expression in the present. And even if there are many who regret what was done many and many years ago, claiming that there are few today who have really good ideas, we must recognise that – fortunately! – there are always those who find a way to make a difference, creating something innovative in their own way, while treasuring what was made in the past. Bong Jooh-ho is one of these.