A MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING for just about every movie Bong Joon-ho ever made including Parasite, Snowpiercer, The Host, Memories of Murder, Mother, and Barking Dogs Never Bite
Bong Joon-ho is a filmmaker of many tastes. From making a period detective mystery, to schlocky monster movie, to Oscar darling all over the course of a 20 year period, Bong has dabbled in a wide variety of classic film genres whilst also breaking new ground. Though Bong’s films are all very different, they often tackle the same themes and visual motifs: class division, institutional ineptitude, and his continual use of rain.
The way that Bong presents his native country of South Korea, one would think it rivals London or Seattle in the amount of rainfall it receives. Across the majority of Bong’s work, a heavy rain batters around and often on his forlorn characters. While rain is used a lot in Bong Joon-ho’s work, each use of it differs from another and each storm unearths a richer sense of symbolic subtext. It is not strictly a mood setter or plot device, but rather another tool in the arsenal of a master filmmaker to create some of the best films of the 21st century.
Rain the Harbinger
Storm clouds often permeate throughout Bong’s work to signal the coming of a torrential downpour. Thunder rumbles as a character gets deeper and deeper into a situation they will not so easily get out of. Mother’s title card shows storm clouds on the horizon behind her, foreshadowing the dark events to come. Rain is often a warning, a harbinger in Bong’s work, signaling that trouble is brewing, but, like most of Bong’s characters, they don’t even realize it.
The film that Bong utilizes rain for this effect best is his 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder depicting a rural South Korean town terrorized by a serial killer in the late 1980's. Early in the film, the police discover that the killer strikes whenever it rains, giving them the chance to prevent the next attack. By using this device, Bong is able to condition a sense of dread in the audience whenever the rain falls. It is expertly utilized in a scene where the two lead detectives, Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) and Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim-Sang-kyung) bicker, only to be interrupted by the sound of rain falling outside. They snap into action, but they are too late. Another victim is claimed.
The rain in Memories of Murder is never playful, but tragic. Bong uses the storms in Memories of Murder to ramp up the tension, showing each woman walking out in the rain as a potential victim. It’s an effective visual indicator of danger. Each storm clears the streets, demonstrating the fear instilled in this small-town community. Soon enough, people are shuttering their doors during the storms, fearful that they are next.
The Host telegraphs a sense of dread and foreboding in the opening titles. Businessman Yoon stands on a bridge overlooking the Han River about to commit suicide. He pauses for a moment, warning to his subordinates trying to stop him that there is something in the water, which his they do not register. He then looks over to them and scoffs, “Morons, to the very end,” and jumps. Mr. Yoon’s words hint at the trouble to come and the moronic attempts of the clueless people to stop it will be for naught. It’s almost Shakespearean that this warning is uttered in the rain and not heeded.
Rain the Revealer
Oftentimes the rain can bring things to the surface, as Mr. Yoon’s warning in The Host demonstrates, but Bong uses it not only as a literal reveal, but also a metaphorical one. The sins of the past often come back to haunt Bong’s characters and reveal the transgressions of not only them, but of the society they are a part of. The rain brings the truth to the surface, laid bare for all to reconcile with.
The Host features the most prevalent use of rain as revealer by presenting a literal representation of the sins of the Korean and United States governments coming to the surface in the form of a gigantic fish-like creature terrorizing Seoul. It harkens back to that old belief that it’s best to fish in the rain, as the fish would be more likely to come to the surface. It rains constantly in The Host as if to goad the creature, a literal symbol of the fallout from government corruption, to reveal itself to the world.
The use of rain in The Host also reveals how easily paranoia can spread. People are forced inside not only from the rain, but by paranoia stoked by the government about a potential virus the monster creates. It calls back to the Black Plague of the Middle Ages, where constant rainfall also contributed to the widespread of the disease across the world. Here it is used to show the spread fear through rumors, especially in the scene where a man coughs and spits into a puddle in front of a crowd of people, causing a mass panic.
In Parasite, the rain storm at the center of the film brings all the dirt and grime of the characters to the surface. The Kim family is a remarkable unit of hustlers, successfully scamming their way into the Park household as tutor, therapist, driver, and housekeeper. When the Parks are away on a camping trip, the Kims have their run of the place, drinking, reading, and watching the rain fall outside the window. They ponder on what the next step could be for them, the seeds being planted to eventually take the house for themselves. It all seems like fun until the doorbell rings, ushering the arrival of Moon-Gwang (Lee Jun-eun), the houskeeper they got fired. What follows is the discovery of a third set of “parasites” hiding in the sub basement and thus all the parasites (the others of course being the Kims) are out in the open. It is not long before they scramble for control over the household that is not even theirs. All the rain can do is watch on.
The Kims emerge victorious against Moon-Gwang and Geun-se (Park Myung-hoon), but the Parks arrive home early, causing them to flee. Ki-Taek (Kang Ho-Song), Ki-Woo(Choi Woo-Sik), and Ki-Jung (Park So-dam) all go through the long, wet, and demeaning journey back to their true home in the poorer neighborhood. Bong makes a point to show how the rain in Parasite connects the two homes, rich and poor, and showcases the unique differences between classes. For Bong, the rain “only flows from top to bottom, from rich neighborhoods to poor ones, and it never flows the other way.” It is a fact that leads to devastating consequences literally and metaphorically for the Kims.
The Kims return to their home to find it completely flooded due to the rain. They are only able to grab a few select items before being forced out of their home. At the start of the film, the Kims leave their windows open when a fumigation truck comes by, saying they will get a free extermination. This time they leave their windows open and they are now the ones being exterminated. They are flushed out, blending in with the sewage water as they are forced to remember where they stand on the societal ladder. They have transgressed and nature swiftly reminds them of their place.
The rain storm in Parasite and Bong’s desire to show how water “only flows from top to bottom,” speaks right to the class differences lying at the heart of many of his films, especially Parasite. For the Parks, the rain was only a minor inconvenience. It simply ruined their camping trip. For the Kims, it ruins everything. Their home is destroyed and they are forced to spend the night in a gymnasium. The rich and poor may both be equalized in how the rain can change things, but it is the manner and magnitude of those effects that reveal the true disparity amongst the classes.
The rain storm in Parasite also brings a lot of hidden truths to the surface. While the Kims hide under the living room table as Mr. and Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-Jung) lay on the couch nearby, Mr. Park (Lee Sun-Kyun) muses to his wife about Ki-Taek. He muses about “the line” that Ki-Taek is always on the verge of crossing and his smell: that poor person smell that he cannot stand, unaware that Ki-Taek is mere feet away from him. It showcases the Park’s implicit biases also coming to the surface, and it has a profound effect on Ki-Taek and it will cost them both him and Mr. Park dearly in the film’s climax.
Rain revealing the true nature of character also comes to a head during the climax of Memories of Murder. Detective Seo Tae-Yoon has volunteered to help catch the murderer and throughout the film represents the presence of modern and honest police work encroaching on the incompetent, corrupt, “look into my eyes and I’ll know if you’re guilty” methods of local detective Park Doo-man. Their methods clash frequently throughout the film, but eventually Seo finds who he believes to be the true culprit, a young student Hyeon-gyu (Park Hae-Il) but evidence is scant, save for DNA evidence they have to send to America. After a local girl Seo questioned becomes another victim, he drags Hyeon-gyu out of his home in the middle of the rain, intending to execute him.
At that moment Park rushes to the rescue with the results of the DNA test. Seo looks at the results and is shocked to see that they are inconclusive. As the rain patters on the paper it does little to wash his certainty into doubt. He rejects the idea, saying “documents can lie,” going completely against his mantra “documents never lie,” and decides to execute Hyeon-gyu anyway. Park is able to stop him, but in the ensuing struggle, the results are destroyed and Hyeon-gyu escapes. Thus the killer and the biggest piece of evidence wash away, vanishing to be unsolved for years.
The climax of Memories of Murder reveals a lot about not only the stances of Seo and Park, but also the state of the country during the late 80's. Having just become a liberalized democracy, the country was still in the throes of an authoritarian regime. Memories of Murder takes place in the year span of that transition, making a point to show a protest in the rain as well. The climax of the film shows the uncertainty of a country struggling to figure itself out in the midst of a brutal crime. It’s only when someone is not killed in the rain that the cycle of violence ends and the characters, and the country, can heal.
Rain the Gatherer
When raindrops fall from the sky, many people’s impulse is to rush inside as quickly as possible. It speaks to rain’s ability to bring people together in a confined space, “sometimes cozily, sometimes uncomfortably.” As a result, the characters are often forced to sort out their issues amongst themselves as they cannot leave wherever they are trapped. It is, as Bong puts it, a good mood setter and often used to symbolize the union of the family before completely tearing them apart.
The Host sees the Park family, once divided, come together in order to find and save the Hyun-seo (Go Ah-Sung), the young daughter of Gang-du (Kang-ho Song) who has been kidnapped by the monster. After escaping from the government health facility in order to hunt for her, they spend the night hiding in their family snack bar. As they eat, they imagine their youngest among them, safe and sound, the family unit whole for a brief moment while they eat.
It is a moment of peace for the Parks and the only time all members of the family are together in the same frame, even if Hyun-seo’s presence is a fantasy. This moment demonstrates how strong the Parks could be as a unit working together instead of working against each other. The Park family has spent years apart from one another, each struggling on their own separate paths. Each sibling has a strategy they believe is best to save Hyun-seo, but their father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) urges them to work together or it will continue to split them apart. His advice is unheeded and the Parks suffer the consequences.
The next morning the Parks find the creature and try to attack it, but they are unorganized and it results in Hee-bong’s death at the monster’s scaly hands, Gang-du getting captured by the government, and Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and Nam-joo (Bae Doona) on the run. It is only through the death of their oldest member that the Parks get their act together in order to save their youngest member. The surviving Parks learn the hard way during that rain storm that unity will provide them the strength they need to vanquish the formidable foe that threatens their very existence.
Rain the Cleanser
A heavy rainstorm is relentless, but once the clouds clear, the world is suddenly cleaner, fresh. This is the handiwork of rain’s symbolic resonance as cleanser. Bong Joon-ho’s utilized rain to this effect across a few films. He offers his characters a chance to start anew as well as give everyone an equal opportunity at redemption. What they choose to do with that though, is in their own hands and must suffer the consequences of their actions should they make the wrong decisions.
In his 2009 film Mother, Bong showcases the titular Mother’s (Hye-ja Kim) willingness to do anything to exonerate her son Do-Joon (Won Bin) of the murder he is accused of. She dives deeper into the case than the cops do, looking for any shred of evidence. She breaks into the house of Do-Joon’s friend Jin-Tae (Jin Goo) and steals a golf club she believes has blood on it. Thunder rumbles and rain starts to fall as she rushes to the police station. She keeps the club wrapped in a glove, to make sure that the rain will not wash away the one thing she believes could cleanse her son’s guilt.
The irony of Mother is that Mother is completely wrong about her son. Her investigation only comes to the same result as the police as Do-Joon is guilty. In her efforts to cleanse her son’s guilt, she makes the truth even clearer. The malleability of memory is a constant theme in Mother as she tries to consistently wash away the bad memories in favor of the good ones. Mother does manage to exonerate her son by murdering the only witness capable of confirming Do-Joon’s crimes, but at an enormous cost. His guilt is now her own and not even a typhoon could wash that away.
Rain often brings everyone down to the same playing field. Rich or poor, rain can often serve as a natural equalizer, making us all wet and at its mercy. This is exemplified in Bong’s 2000 debut feature Barking Dogs Never Bite. Rain is only shown in two instances in the film, once following the opening scene and again at the end of the film’s second act. The film opens when mild-mannered professor Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) tries to murder what he believes to be the dog yapping around his apartment complex, but hides it in the basement instead. The rains follow and with it we see that dog’s owner, a little girl in a yellow raincoat, plodding along, a missing dog poster slung under her arm. She gets them copied, hoping to find the beloved pet that was taken from her.
Yun-ju is responsible for this innocent soul’s plight, but the universe doles out its own sense of cosmic justice. After successfully murdering the actual barking dog, Yun-ju returns home and discover that his wife bought a poodle. He accidentally loses it, driving a wedge in his marriage. It is here that the rain returns, but this time it is Yun-ju in a yellow raincoat trudging to make copies of missing dog posters. The rain equalizes and turns the tables on the guilty, leaving them on the same playing field as the innocent.
Bong’s use of precipitation is not just limited to rain. There are often moments in Bong’s work that also utilize snow, from The Host to Parasite, and, of course, Snowpiercer. Snow comes into play in the codas to both The Host and Parasite, showing a new normal following the violent and tragic climaxes of both films. In The Host, Gang-Doo lives in the Park family food shack, having adopted See-joo (Lee Dong-ho), a young boy who Hyun-seo sacrificed her life to save. They appear to live in harmony, but are on alert for another creature potentially returning from the Han River. In Parasite, it snows as Ki-woo realizes that his father Ki-taek is still in the basement and dreams of a reality in which he can become successful enough to free his father.
Both films use snow for its purest purposes, only to different ends. In The Host, it gives a sense of peace. That though the threat may not be over, there is still some peace in the valley once again. Parasite on the other hand uses that sense of peace and pulls the rug out at the last second. It offers a ray of hope through the sunshine of Ki-woo’s fantasy, only to cut back to the cold, harsh, reality of the snow falling outside the window of their derelict apartment showing that fantasy will never come to pass.
Snowpiercer on the other hand uses snow as the ultimate cleanser, wiping out most of all life on Earth apart from the ones that made it onto the titular train. The outside world is brutal and terrifying, almost as terrifying as the oppression and class disparity happening inside the train. The opportunity to begin anew is disregarded for business as usual for over 30 years. However, the end of the film suggests that there will be a new world order as Yona (Go Ah-sung) and Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis) crawl out of the blown up remains of the train and see a polar bear alive and well. Snow cleared the slate and now humanity can rebuild into something (hopefully) better.
The rain is a visual and thematic device that can be utilized in a number of ways and Bong Joon-ho has managed to take advantage of that in every way he can. From stern warnings, to fear spreaders, to cosmic retribution, Bong has showcased the versatility of the weather and how it can either save us or destroy us. Bong’s films speak to a lot of issues regarding class, family, and the plight of the fool and rain is often what will wash away their sins and bring them salvation.
Though Bong’s films are often tragic and intense, they are far from cynical. In fact, they offer glimmers of hope. Bong has used rain and snow as a sense where new life can begin. Whenever he shows a rainstorm, it is usually followed by a bright, beautiful day, suggesting that with each storm we are given a clean slate. How often we don’t take advantage of that sort of thing for the better. Bong is telling us that the rain can wash our sins away. That after all the grime and dirt of our past, it can be forgiven and we can truly better ourselves.
The Host, Parasite, Mother, and Barking Dogs Never Bite can be found on Hulu, Snowpiercer is on Netflix, and Memories of Murder is unfortunately not streaming anywhere at the moment, but a Criterion release should change that soon enough.