Korean director Bong Joon-ho has made his mark on cinephiles around the world with a range of intriguing, beguiling, and unique films. His work found its way to North America in sort of a cult status with films like “Memories of a Murder,” “Mother,” and “The Host.” But it was his first English-language project, “Snowpiercer,” where he really became popular among American audiences. That film, which starred Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, is soon to be a television series for TNT.
After “Snowpiercer,” his next film, also starring Tilda Swinton, was “Okja,” landed at Netflix and was widely considered to be an Oscar contender for visual effects.
And now he returns with “Parasite,” a film that won the Palme D’Or at Cannes just six months ago. Since its premiere in France, “Parasite” has taken on a life of its own, quickly finding itself with invitations to just about every festival around the world, winning awards along the way. Despite the fact that Korea has never had a nominee for the newly-renamed Academy Award for International Film, “Parasite” appears to be one of the year’s safest bets.
The film is the story of families from very different circumstances and classes, but to say more would ruin the experience of watching it. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Bong Joon-ho as part of a round table where we discussed some of the more technical aspects of the work, as well as his general attitude toward filmmaking, and what he thinks of all that Oscar talk.
Warning: This conversation includes spoilers for “Parasite.” If you wish to avoid spoilers before viewing the film, you are advised to stop reading now.
Alci Rengifo/Entertainment Voice: Where did this idea come from? What inspired this particular story?
Bong Joon-ho: Like all artists, I draw inspiration from personal experiences. When I was in college I worked as a tutor, which is very common for Korean university students. It didn’t happen all the time, but sometimes I would tutor for very rich families — for this one particular family, I got fired after two months. They were very particular. Usually, it’s not easy to really look at the private spaces of a family home, but the boy I was tutoring gave me a tour of the entire house. He was showing it off. But, I had the opportunity to look at every corner of this rich house. I have a lot of vivid memories from that time. It was kind of like I was spying on the private lives of complete strangers — and they had a private sauna on the second floor! Just like in the movie! [laughs] At the time I was quite shocked. “Wow! A sauna in the house! Unbelievable!” The boy, he was very proud of it.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: This film feels like it’s very much about Korea and the Korean class struggle, but it also feels very universal. Was that intentional?
BJH: At first, I was amazed by the response because I really thought that this film was just full of Korean details, and the actors — their performances were full of very Korean nuances. I kind of worried whether international audiences would be able to sympathize with this story. But ever since we screened the film at Cannes, it seemed that people reacted very similarly to the smallest details. Even I didn’t quite understand why. After Cannes, I was at the Sydney Film Festival, Munich, Telluride, Toronto — the reaction was all the same everywhere. I think maybe there is no borderline between countries now because we all live in the same country, it’s called capitalism. I think that’s the reason.
Kate Hagen/The Blacklist: Your films break all kinds of conventional genre rules. Is that something you’re thinking about during the writing process, or do you just tell the story you want to tell?
BJH: It’s definitely closer to the latter. When I’m writing the script, I’m just busy thinking about the situations and the characters. As I write more and more, it almost feels like I’m not writing the story, the story is dragging me along. A lot of people comment on how I shift tones and mix genres and I’m very grateful for those comments, but to be very honest, when I’m writing or shooting, I’m never really aware that I do that. It’s not something that I intend. I think if someone were to threaten me, forcing me to maintain a singular tone throughout the two hours of one film, that would actually be more difficult for me. The mixtures and shifts — that feels more natural to me.
Angela Dawson/Front Row Features: How was the flood sequence in the film shot? Was it all on a set?
BJH: We actually found an actual neighborhood. We asked all the residents to sacrifice their homes for this film. “You people must be very supportive of this film!” Just kidding! [laughs] We built the set in a swimming pool — it was a huge swimming pool. Actually, it was a big water tank for special effects. We built the whole neighborhood and we shot it in there. The last two days, we put in the very dirty stuff — the water looks dirty, but actually it’s very clean water we used…mudpacks?
Translator: Facial mud-masks in the water.
BJH: The water looks really shitty, but for the actors — it’s very good for their skin. [laughs]
AD: How long did it take to shoot that sequence? Because it was unbelievable.
BJH: Two days. Two nights.
[Collective surprise from around the table.]
BJH: In Korea, we really prepared for that sequence. We simulated everything: how high the water comes in at each stage of the sequence, how the toilet spews water and excrement. We tested the pressure and everything. We prepared so much to shoot that sequence — I basically draw storyboards for the entire film. I don’t shoot coverage, I just shoot as I planned during the storyboard stage with the camera angles that we’ve already tested. We ended up using most of the shots that we filmed, we didn’t really waste that much.
AR: When it comes to the social commentary in this movie — and in other films you’ve made, like “Snowpiercer” — they clearly comment on the class system in the world, capitalism. What impact do you hope cinema and a film like “Parasite” can have on audiences around the world? Do you hope it makes them more conscious? Do you hope it influences how they vote? What do you hope the impact of a movie like this can be today?
BJH: I don’t create films to make the world a better place. I’m a filmmaker who really pursues the beauty of cinema in itself. But, of course, if a film is able to have a positive impact on the world that would be great, but I never start with that specific goal when I first start to plan or design a project. In our daily lives when we’re chatting with our friends, we talk about what we ate, how our love lives are going, and naturally, you know, we talk about Trump, the mortgage crisis. I think our daily lives are very mixed with politics in general, so I always focus on the beauty of cinema, and the daily lives of specific individuals. That’s where my interests lie. The political commentary — it’s already seeped into those [story] elements, so for me, it would be very awkward to separate the two.
KP: All the actors are really great in this film. Which was the easiest role to cast and which was the hardest role to cast?
BJH: Actually, from the beginning, even before I began screenwriting, three actors [were] already in my mind — the [poor] father and son and the original housekeeper (Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, and Lee Jeong-eun.) So, during screenwriting I always imagined them. I remembered their special way of behavior and their way of talking, their facial expressions. It was very helpful. In terms of the poor daughter (Park So-dam), I realized that she really looks like the poor son. They look just like actual siblings, so I reached out to her when I almost finished the script. The film’s opening begins with their faces side by side.
The most challenging roles were basically two actors: The first one was the rich housewife (Cho Yeo-jeong.) Audiences in the US or Europe may not know, but Cho Yeo-jeong hasn’t really played roles like that before — she’s usually known to play really beautiful and sexy characters, so at first, people were very surprised — this film really showed a new side of her. And the last role that I cast was of course the man in the secret basement (Park Myung-hoon.) It’s a very difficult role, and I wanted it to be an actor that the public didn’t really know. He’s a stage actor. I saw his previous indie films and then cast him.
KH: Since this is your fourth film with Song Kang-ho, what appeals to you about his sort of everyman quality? How has your working relationship evolved together?
BJH: I consider myself a genre filmmaker. I always create genre films, and a lot of my films break genre conventions, but also go back and forth between reality and genre elements. It’s almost like they’re walking on a tightrope. But I think that’s all possible because of this actor, Song Kang-ho. No matter how genre a specific scene or moment gets, once they’re filtered through him, they all end up feeling realistic. He manages just to persuade the audience. In other Korean films, Song Kang-ho has played super charismatic heroes, but in my films for some reason he always plays kind of like, the idiot loser [laughs] who gets stuck in these very extreme situations.
AD: Would you ever consider making a “conventional” Hollywood studio film?
BJH: When “The Host” was screened in Cannes and Toronto in 2006, a lot of US agencies contacted me, and my agent changed after “Snowpiercer.” But my previous agent, who is an amazing guy, brought me a lot of offers to direct franchises and big blockbuster films. But, personally, I have a lot of fears. Until now I’ve been very lucky as a filmmaker because I’ve always managed to keep my Director’s Cut with the final version of the film. It wasn’t as if I have a theatrical version and then a Director’s Cut version that we release on DVD or anything like that. There’s always been one version of my films. But I’ve heard that the bigger the budget becomes, the less creative control you have, and that’s something I fear, I would never be able to work like that. I would rather make smaller-budget films and have all the creative control.
AR: To segue from that question, what do you have coming up next after “Parasite?” What would you like to explore next? Will you change genres?
BJH: Usually, I let ideas mature and brew in my mind for a very long period of time. With “Parasite,” it all began in 2013. I’m currently preparing two projects, but I started preparing them two or three years ago. I’m working on them currently, regardless of what happens with “Parasite.” Relatively, they’re smaller films on the scale of “Parasite” and “Mother” — one in Korean and one in English. The Korean project, in particular, I’ve thought about for a very long time, since 2001, so it’s been eighteen years. I need to shoot it ASAP or I will get sick of it. [laughs]
KP: What are you like on set? Are you really strict with your actors, are you really fun — or both?
BJH: On set, actors are what’s most important. I really focus on trying to make them comfortable. Me and all the crew members already have the storyboard in our hands and we just shoot according to the storyboard that we have planned, so there’s really no opportunity or reason to scream or fight with another person. There’s only one thing that I’m very strict about. [pause] Catering. [laughs] I always ask, “What’s for lunch today?”
KH: Speaking of food, I have to ask about the peaches — I think anyone who sees this movie will never see a peach the same way again. How did that particular image and idea come to you?
BJH: Actually, I experienced something similar in college when I went on a trip with my classmates. One of my friends said he had a peach allergy, and we all thought that he was joking. So someone actually brought a peach and threw it at him — it didn’t even hit him, it was like a meter away, but his arm just turned bright red. I remember it being very shocking, visually very shocking. Everyone felt so bad and they were just stunned. But there are so many varieties of allergies that people have. I personally have a shellfish allergy, but I think peach is the most cinematic, aesthetically. The fuzz is very discrete, so you can just spray it around without the other person knowing.
AR: Why “Parasite” and not “Parasites” since there’s more than one parasite in the film?
BJH: During one of our marketing meetings, we actually discussed adding an “s” within parenthesis in the title — “Parasite(s)” — but we thought that maybe it was too intellectually pretentious, so we kept the title simple. Also in terms of the story, I always say that the poor family is a parasite, but the rich family are parasites, too, in terms of labor — they leech off of the poor family’s labor in driving, housekeeping, and tutoring. And, of course, there’s a third family who were the original parasites of that house. So it would reflect the story better, but we just decided to keep the title simple.
Awards Circuit would like to thank Bong Joon-ho for speaking with us.
“Parasite” is distributed by Neon and is now playing in select theaters.