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BONG Joon-ho Wins Palme d’Or at Historic Cannes for Korean Cinema

May 28, 2019
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
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PARASITE Takes Home World’s Biggest Film Prize

19 years after IM Kwon-taek became the first ever Korean director invited to the competition section of the Cannes Film Festival with Chunhyang (2000), one of his fellow countrymen has walked away from the Croisette with the biggest prize on the global film festival circuit for the very first time. BONG Joon-ho’s seventh feature film PARASITE beat out 20 other contenders and was crowned with the coveted Palme d’Or last Saturday evening, at the issue of what was for many a particularly strong edition of the festival.

This historic Palme d’Or win, a prize that had eluded Korean directors for nigh on two decades despite several worthy contenders in the form of PARK Chan-wook’s Old Boy (2003) and LEE Chang-dong’s BURNING (2018), among many others, comes during the same year that Korea is celebrating the centenary of its film industry. Yet PARASITE wasn’t the only film representing Korea in Cannes this year, with the hit Korean thriller The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil bowing to positive responses in the midnight lineup, while YEON Je-gwang’s Alien screened in the Cinefondation section and JEONG Da-hee’s short Movements was featured in the Directors’ Fortnight program.

This year’s 72nd Cannes Film Festival saw Director BONG return to competition for the second time in a row, following 2017’s selection of his Netflix-backed Okja, while it was his sixth official visit to the festival overall. Previous invitations were extended for The Host in Directors Fortnight in 2006, the omnibus Tokyo! in Un Certain Regard in 2008, Mother in Un Certain Regard in 2009 and his stint as President of the Camera d’Or jury in 2011.

PARASITE’s Palme d’Or is the sixth competition prize to have been earned by a Korean film in Cannes, following IM Kwon-taek’s Best Director win for Chihwaseon in 2002, PARK Chan-wook’s Grand Prix (Old Boy, 2003) and Jury Prize (Thirst, 2009), LEE Chang-dong’s Best Screenplay Award for Poetry in 2010 and JEON Do-yeon’s Best Actress win for LEE Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine in 2007.

BONG’s new film, his first to be fully set in Korea since Mother, stars SONG Kang-ho as the father of an unemployed family, while JANG Hye-jin plays his wife and CHOI Woo-shik and PARK So-dam feature as his children. His son lands a job as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy couple played by LEE Sun-kyun and JO Yeo-jeong and before long both families begin to intersect in unexpected ways.

Despite premiering straight after Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, the star-driven return to Cannes for former Palme d’Or winner Quentin TARANTINO, PARASITE bowed in the Auditorium Louis Lumière at 10pm on Tuesday, May 21, and received a five-minute standing ovation and an instant and rapturous response as reactions gushed forth on social media. A wave of enthusiastic reviews soon began to ripple through newspapers and websites around the globe and just as BURNING did a year earlier, BONG’s new film topped Screen Daily's Cannes jury grid with a 3.5 score.

The immediate consensus was that PARASITE is both a fiercely contemporary parable on social inequality and an exquisitely produced film as rich, blackly comic and polished as anything the filmmaker has made before. Variety calls it “a tick fat with the bitter blood of class rage” while Indiewire describes it as a “furious and fiendishly well-crafted new film”, going on to say, in reference to the director’s trademark combination of genre and tone, that with his latest “BONG finally becomes a genre unto himself.”

Moments before announcing the recipient of the Palme d’Or, this year’s Jury president, acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro González IÑÁRRITU, revealed that the entire nine-person jury had come to a unanimous consensus on the winner. As PARASITE was announced, Director BONG, who attended the ceremony with his long-time friend and collaborator SONG Kang-ho, came up to stage and accepted his prize from French screen legend Catherine DENEUVE. On stage, BONG spoke of his love of French cinema, citing Henri-Georges CLOUZOT and Claude CHABROL as large influences, and related how moved and surprised he was at receiving the accolade. He then invited his star SONG to say a few words and called out to his family, who were also sitting in the audience.

A day after PARASITE, the red steps of the Palais des Festivals welcomed the director and cast of the other Korean feature in the official Cannes lineup this year, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil. This sophomore work from MAN OF WILL (2017) director LEE Won-tae features Don LEE (aka MA Dong-seok) as a gang boss who teams up with GIM Mu-yeol’s thug-hating cop to take down a vicious serial killer played by KIM Sung-kyu

Website Little White Lies praised the film, which “pulls off its familiar twists and turns with style and verve,” while Screen Daily singles out “Lee’s entertaining performance, more than a little reminiscent of his macho roles in the enormously successful TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016) and THE OUTLAWS (2017).” The film has proven to be a success at home, where it opened on May 15 and has to date welcomed a sturdy 2.87 million viewers (USD 21.25 million). Shortly before the fest, news broke that Sylvester STALLONE’s production company would be teaming up with the film’s backer BA Entertainment to produce an English-language remake of the property, with LEE reprising his lead role.

YEON’s Alien, a Korea National University of Arts (K’Arts) project screening in Cinéfondation, a competitive section that specializes in short student works, is an accomplished work that examines a young Chinese-Korean factory worker who loses her friend in an accident and watches on helplessly as the systems around her erase her friend from existence. Movements marks the second Cannes invitation for animation director JEONG, whose award-winning Man on the Chair also screened in Directors’ Fortnight in 2014.

Meanwhile, the Korean film industry was also active on the floor of the Marché du Film, with several Korean sales companies presenting their latest titles to buyers from around the world, while the Korean Film Council manned its stand on the beach behind the Palais as it has in previous years and once again staged a popular Korean Film Night event during the festival.

Leading sales news at Cannes among Korean titles was PARASITE, which scored a record for CJ Entertainment by selling to distributors in 192 countries ahead of its release, among them Neon for North America, the Jokers in France and Curzon in the United Kingdom. K-Movie Entertainment also reported sales for The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, the North American rights of which were snatched up by Well Go USA, which also announced that it had purchased KIM Bora’s award-winning indie House of Hummingbird (2018) from CONTENTS PANDA.

PARASITE opens in Korea this Thursday, May 30, and the Palme d’Or effect already appears to be underway, with the film handily topping the reservations chart with unusually high numbers (over 200,000 as of this writing) for a film that is neither an effects-driven blockbuster or released during a traditionally busy theater-going season.
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