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Director Bong Joon ho on his favorite filmmakers and the rich kid who inspired Parasite

Bong Joon ho (Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images, Graphic: Karl Gustafson)
Bong Joon ho (Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images, Graphic: Karl Gustafson)
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We’ve still got a couple of months left to go in 2019, but at this early stage, Bong Joon ho’s Parasite might be the movie of the year. It’s the entertaining yet incisive critique of late capitalism that Adam McKay wishes he could have made, as well as a brilliantly constructed Hitchcockian identity thriller, farcical comedy, and family drama, all wrapped up into one film. Bong’s most faithful collaborator, Song Kang-ho, stars as Ki-taek, patriarch of the impoverished Kim family, who as the movie opens is struggling to get by on odd jobs and stolen wifi. Then a childhood friend of son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) recommends him for a gig as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family, whose immaculately curated lives of luxury couldn’t be more different from the Kims’ hardscrabble existence.

An hour into the film, the entire Kim family has ingratiated themselves with the Parks, displacing and replacing the rich family’s existing staff through a combination of subterfuge and some good old-fashioned fast talking. It seems that the Kims are the parasites of the title—until everything gets turned upside down. The shift from bright satirical comedy to deep pathos is as subtle as the whiplash from Bong hitting the film’s narrative breaks is jarring. All of it is signature Bong, the handiwork of a director who’s made a career out of playfully reinventing genres in films like Memories Of Murder, The Host, and Snowpiercer.

Parasite takes Bong back to his own college days, when he was a tutor for a rich family not unlike the Parks in his new film. We asked him about that gig when Bong came to Austin for Fantastic Fest, in a discussion that digs into some of the politics and themes of the film, but he always returned to one topic: his own love of movies.

The A.V. Club: There are some recurring themes in your work that one could argue are very political: ecological themes, for example, and class conflict. At the same time, your films are also structured in a very classically cinematic way, which is often considered escapist. Do you consider your films to be political?

Bong Joon ho: “Cinematic” is a word I really like. As a film fanatic myself, I always want to shoot films that deliver that sense of cinematic excitement. So that’s something I prioritize. And I think that in order to achieve that, I need to introduce really interesting individuals. So rather than big political themes, I focus on characters that are fascinating and make you want to explore more.

I make films in South Korea, which is a very small country, but also very dynamic. So no matter how deep I go into individuals, I can’t really separate these characters from their history and social context. So I think that very naturally leads into political commentary. That’s something I discovered writing scripts. And I think at this point in my career, it’s just become one of my patterns, one of my habits.

AVC: What’s your entrance point into your stories? Do you come up with a character and write a story around them? Or read a news story and get inspired, or...?

BJH: For all of my seven films, it’s been different each time. Okja began with this one fascinating image I had in mind. And for Parasite, when I was in college, I tutored for a rich family, and I remember the eerie feeling that I got from that house—the eerie atmosphere, and the smell. My student was this middle-school-aged boy, and he took me to the second floor of the house to show me their private sauna. And I remember being amazed that a house could have its own private sauna. He was very proud of it. “Hey man, look, we have this in our house.” [Laughter.]

AVC: You mentioned earlier that it’s impossible to separate your characters from their place in South Korean society, but I think the class commentary—specifically the idea of luxury, and ignoring all the pain and suffering of the people giving it to you—is also very relatable to Americans. Is this film meant to speak to something you see in Korea specifically, or is it more universal?  

BJH: It’s something that’s very universal in the world. I grew up middle class, but I had friends and cousins who were both rich and poor, so I had the chance to observe both sides pretty closely. I think that’s something that’s common among the rich everywhere. They only see the reality that they want to see. They draw an imaginary line, and they keep it that way.

But the rich characters in the film, they’re not really bad people. Mr. Park is a hardworking, successful CEO. It’s not like he does anything that’s specifically bad in the film. But he is completely oblivious to the lives and situations of the people around him, and what the have-nots go through all around him. He just treads forward like a blindfolded horse. He just moves on.

AVC: In Parasite, there are several scenes where characters are talking in the foreground, and other characters are moving in the background. What was your intention with that?

BJH: In this film, we have very limited space, but a lot of characters. In Snowpiercer, as the narrative progresses, you see the new train cars unfold. But in Parasite, you see new characters unfold in the same space, and you see new sides of the characters that were introduced before. You also see characters secretly peeking at other characters or eavesdropping. So I think very naturally you get to see a lot of these layers within the frame.

AVC: When you write a script, do you see in your head everything you were just talking about with the space, and the framing? Or do you write the script and then layer all that on later?

BJH: I think that this applies to all writer-directors who write their scripts so they can shoot them later. I always have the image and sound in my mind; I just put it into a script format so I can share that with other crew members. So I turn on Final Draft and write the script, but in my mind I am constantly thinking about the sound and image.

AVC: As your films get more international recognition and are seen by more international audiences, does that change anything about your approach?

BJH: This is a little selfish and irresponsible for me to say, but I confess that I always just shoot the film I want to see. The standard for the audience is just me. I ask myself, how can we shoot this so it excites me even further? That’s always been my approach.

AVC: How has your working relationship with Song Kang-ho evolved over the years? Do you guys have a Klaus Kinski-Werner Herzog thing going on?

BJH: Well, we’ve never pointed a pistol at each other—

AVC: [Laughs.] Of course!

BJH: But I was actually very comfortable working with him on Parasite. It’s never as if, you know, we both have scripts in our hands and we have these serious discussions in three-hour-long meetings about the script. I just do my best to write the script, and I hand it off to him, and when he comes back, he already has his own ideas prepared.

And this is totally different, but when Song and I went to Telluride, we had the opportunity to meet Herzog, and he actually saw the film at its North American premiere. He had such great things to say, and it was a great honor to be able to talk to him. When I was in college studying film, I remember just being incredibly—I admired him a lot, and his films like Aguirre: The Wrath Of God. I heard that a lot of amazing filmmakers attend this festival as well. I really wanted to meet Ari Aster, but I heard he left yesterday.

AVC: Who are your favorite directors of all time, and who are some younger directors you’re excited to see more from?

BJH: Among contemporary directors, I really admire the horror films of Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. In the generation above that, I have affection for De Palma. But I think that if you climb up that pyramid [Draws a triangle with his hands.] at the very top is Hitchcock.

AVC: I agree.

BJH: I’ve admired him since I was little, and I think I’m under his umbrella as well.

Parasite opens this weekend in limited release, with a nationwide expansion planned through October and early November.