Bong Joon-Ho is one of the most acclaimed directors of recent times. Jonah Rice has been through Joon-Ho’s filmography to rank his greatest movie characters.
South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has recently established himself as one of the most prominent directors working today. This surge of popularity is largely attributed to the success he found with his Oscar-winning thriller from 2019: Parasite.
However, Joon-ho’s accomplishments in the industry expand far beyond that one impressive feat. With his illustrious filmography, he’s built an equally distinguished roster of everlasting characters. Like a guitarist tuning his strings before stepping on stage to enrapture the audience with a classic tandem of chords and vocals, this filmmaker carefully crafts his characters within each script so that, by the time production begins and the crew is ready to roll, the actors can properly sing the songs of Bong Joon-ho.
Today, we’re counting down his ten best characters throughout all seven of his works. Although, I may not cover every single one. No offense to 2017’s Okja, but it was an anomaly amongst Joon-ho’s filmography due to the dearth of well-written characters. Nonetheless, let’s get to it.
10. Baek Kwang-ho – Memories of Murder (2003)
Following Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000, this was Bong Joon-ho’s second feature. Released in 2003, it fictionalizes the real-life murders that took place in Hwaseong, a city in the Gyeonggi Province of South Korea—and early on in the film, we get our first suspect for the killings.
Baek Kwang-ho is, well, he’s a few fries short of a happy meal, if you catch my drift, and he’s initially accused of the murders due to his infatuation with one of the victims. He was known to follow her around town on occasion—stalking her, you could say.
And we totally believe he’s capable of committing such a heinous crime as murder considering his absurd reactions to things. His facial expressions, and his aura in general. These traits, however, also encapsulate an absorbing character of dark, comedic relief. He’s bound to stick in your memory.
The train track scene in Memories of Murder
9. Namgoong Minsoo – Snowpiercer (2013)
Bong Joon-ho’s most frequent collaborator—whom you’ll undoubtedly see appear later in the list—Song Kang-ho absolutely nailed the role of Namgoong Minsoo, the security engineer for the eponymous, futuristic train in Snowpiercer. The protagonist, Curtis—played by Chris Evans—enlists Minsoo’s help in his escapade to the front of the train. One problem: Minsoo is helplessly addicted to a drug called Kranole.
After breaking him out of the apocalyptic prison, Curtis collects the cubes of Kranole and rewards Minsoo with a quick fix whenever he successfully opens a door to the next train car. This creates an alluring dynamic and produces an air of eccentricity otherwise lacking in the film.
If I threw bias aside for a moment, then Minsoo would rank a few notches higher. Ultimately, though, he lacks the depth and development of the elite Joon-ho characters.
Namgoong Minsoo in Snowpiercer
8. Gook Moon-gwang – Parasite (2019)
As the housekeeper of the wealthy Park family in Parasite, she has been harboring her husband—Geun-sae, hiding from loan sharks—underneath the noses of the very family for whom she works.
That’s pretty bold, especially when considering the prestige of the family at hand. It would take a special person to oppose such a power, but Moon-gwang is up for the task. The twist her character brings to the Park family dinner table serves up the plot’s entire backbone. There’s no debating that.
In some ways, though, she could even be considered the head of the household. This is foreshadowed when Ki-woo arrives at the Park family mansion and mistakes Moon-gwang for Mrs. Park. It’s further alluded to when Mrs. Park herself claims that Moon-gwang is “the expert of the house,” because she knows where everything is. Little did Mrs. Park know—she was right in more ways than one.
Gook Moon-gwang – the housekeeper in Parasite
7. Seo Tae-yoon – Memories of Murder (2003)
Every character from Memories of Murder deserves a spot on this list, or at least an honorable mention. One such character is Seo Tae-yoon, a detective who came in from Seoul to voluntarily help the main character (Park Doo-man) solve the murders at hand.
He induces calmness into each scene he ambles into with his crossed arms and determined glare. His dialogue is well-written from start to finish, too, which only helps facilitate the wonderful performance by Kim Sang-kyung.
The primary protagonist’s partner nearly took this spot—he’s the sort of “bad cop” to Park Doo-man’s “good.” By that, I mean that he often beats his suspects instead of simply conversing with them. I am a sucker for a good flying side kick, but those hilarious tactics from Kim Roi-ha weren’t quite enough to impress me as much as Seo Tae-yoon’s enticing traits of stoicism and selflessness.
The final interrogation in Memories of Murder
6. Jin-tae – Mother (2009)
In Mother, this character acts as the foil to Do-joon—an intellectually disabled twenty-eight-year-old who’s recently been accused of murder. Despite the pair being best friends, they couldn’t possibly possess more disparate personalities.
Whereas Do-joon’s posture is commonly slouched, Jin-tae carries himself upright. He speaks with conviction, while his friend lacks confidence. This stark contrast allows for brilliant punctuations of comedy, particularly with Jin-tae’s dialogue. He’s harsh on his friend despite the latter’s mental shortcomings, and despite its morbidity, the banter often appears lighthearted.
Personally, I was sold on this character after he knocked the side mirror off a Mercedes Benz (another flying side kick—thanks Bong) in retaliation for its driver clipping Do-joon while zooming down the road. There’s more to this character than friendship, though. His motivations often appear layered, and the acting credentials of Jin Goo are on full display. There’s nothing to dislike about this character.
Jin-tae in Mother
5. Park Hee-bong – The Host (2006)
Roughly one hour into The Host—Joon-ho’s genre-defying moneymaker from 2006—Hee-bong (the grandfather of a child named Hyun-seo, who had recently been abducted by a giant, obscure creature) soliloquizes his sympathy for Gang-du, his son and Hyun-seo’s father. Hee-bong implies that Gang-du deserves sympathy for his hardships despite his lazy, slow-witted initiatives.
Given my brief plot synopsis, you might discard my “genre-defying” assertions and declare this a monster movie. However, The Host relies far more on familial values to drive its plot than thrilling moments and surprising scares.
And don’t get me wrong—The Host is replete with those moments, too. But as Hee-bong is burdened by the fact that his negligence as a father eventually rendered his child the sorry excuse of an adult that he is today, now with a child of his own—well, that shows how deeply the plot is driven by personal relationships, or at least the characters’ motivations, as much as the monster itself.
The riverside scene in The Host
4. Park Doo-man – Memories of Murder (2003)
What allures me so strongly to Song Kang-ho’s character are his flaws as a protagonist, let alone a detective in charge of solving a series of grisly murders. I mean, this guy is so lackadaisical in his approach (despite the love he harbors for his community) that the department is forced to bring in another detective from Seoul to assist in the case.
But don’t let those negative qualities fool you—as I said, his heart is showcased in his commitment to the city of Hwaseong. He’s also funny, charming, and connected to the other characters in fashions that perfectly portray his personality.
It’s worth noting, too, that Sang Kang-ho received reverence from around the world for his performance. Among his many accolades includes his first win for best actor at the Korean Film Awards. He has since collaborated with Bong on three other occasions, and it’s easy to see why. Their chemistry is unmatched.
Park Doo-Man and Tae-Yu argue in Memories of Murder
3. Kim Ki-jung – Parasite (2019)
I try not to let the efforts of an actor alone dictate my affinity for any given character. Their dialogue, their growth as a person over the course of the film’s runtime, and perhaps even their allegorical implications that could be conveyed by a number of means, be it a glaring personality trait or even a shirt that they wear—all of these things play a factor in my appreciating their story.
That said: Park So-dam’s performance in Parasite as Kim Ki-jung was mystifying. For confirmation of this, you can look no further than the pneumatic device scene (deemed “Jessica’s Jingle” by fans).
It’s not even a scene, really, but a ten-second exchange that proved the chemistry she shared with her fellow thespians. Ki-jung was also the smartest person in the room, ultimately guiding her family into the titular “Parasite” role. She took whatever path was necessary to get ahead and into the Park family’s home. This development in tandem with the actresses’ commitment to her character transformed Ki-jung into an endlessly fascinating representation of economic inequality, particularly in South Korea.
Kim Ki-jung’s best moments in Parasite
2. The Mother – Mother (2009)
If you aren’t enticed by this movie’s opening scene of the titular Mother dancing somberly in a field with not another soul in sight, I could understand that. It’s beautiful, but simultaneously strange. It creates a fantastical air about the character, whose motive is revealed in the subsequent scene: protecting her son, Do-joon.
To say she’s a committed parent would be a categorical understatement. All within the first act she saves her son from an oncoming car, falls asleep in the same bed with him and commits herself to proving his innocence of murder allegations.
As for the part about them sleeping in the same bed: I’m not sure why Bong Joon-ho is so interested in mentally deficient murder suspects, but in the case of Mother, an unlikely dynamic is created thereof that sets Do-joon and his mom apart from all the rest.
The trailer for Mother
1. Kim Ki-taek – Parasite (2019)
The father of the Kim family, whose vulnerabilities are established off the bat. He’s out of work, and his family mocks him. However, he’s also smart as a whip, and he sure knows how to push the pace of a plot. To triumph over his adversary, he somehow convinces Mrs. Park to get rid of her own housekeeper. And although his ultimate decision (spoiler alert) to kill off Mr. Park and subsequently hide in the bunker was questionable, it undoubtedly created a poetic sort of symmetry between characters.
In a Q&A, Bong Joon-ho detailed a scene from early in the film. When the four members of the Kim family observe a drunk man on the street, Bong described them as having, “different attitudes toward that one character, so the main characters are developed through the filter of these peripheral characters.”
Ki-taek’s arc doesn’t progress solely through his absurd actions or his lines of thought-out dialogue, but also through his observances. He wears his reactions on his sleeve, keying the viewer into his every emotion whether it’s shocked, angry, excited or dismal, and no matter the variety of his visceral responses, the audience can always relate.
Kim Ki-taek driving in Parasite
Thanks for Reading!
Agree with the list? Bong Joon-ho’s films come to life through his characters, and those were my picks for his ten most well-written. Let me know what you think, and thanks for reading!
The beginning of a beautiful friendship
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