Bong Joon Ho has created history by winning the Palme d'or for his film Parasite, making him the first Korean director to win the top prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. I watched the film at its world premiere and got to chat with the director as part of a journalists' roundtable three days before his win. The filmmaker met us with his trademark humility and sense of humour, qualities that permeate through his films as well.
Parasite is a triumph in both the creator's craft and its chameleon-like narrative genius. But Bong was more interested in talking about football when he met us. Much like his films, he kept the conversation light without diluting the depth of his work and vision. Excerpts from the roundtable:
You went back to making a film in Korea after nearly a decade. Was the decision influenced by the sharp economic divide that exists in South Korea much like India?
I first came up with this story and started talking about it in 2013. This was during the post-production of Snowpiercer and before I started writing the script of Okja. My process of making a film takes around 5-7 years from developing the story to the end of the film. So it doesn't exactly correlate with what is going on at the time.
But if I look in hindsight, since this was around the time I was working on Snowpiercer – which is also about class struggle and class difference – the struggle there is between the front cars and the tail cars and the story unfolds using sci-fi and action. I think I wanted to talk about the gap between the rich and poor, a similar theme, in a more realistic, intimate way and on a much smaller scale.
Can you tell us more about the class differences in South Korea? It's clearly what inspired the movie.
We all have people – friends and relatives – who are rich and poor around us. I drew inspiration from my daily life. Thats where it all began. It didn't come from, let's say, like Yellow Vest Protests from France or anything significant like that. Like the protagonist of this film, when I was in college, I also tutored for a very rich family. The sequence that depicts him entering the rich family's house is pretty similar to what I experienced when I entered the rich family's house where I was working as a tutor. I grew up in a middle-class family. That is kind of in-between the poor and the rich family in the film but despite that when I first entered the house in real life, I had this very eerie and unfamiliar sense of that house. That family actually had a sauna on the second floor. At the time it was quite shocking to me.
Can you explain the relationship between the title of the film and the characters in your film? Who are the parasites?
In 2013, when I was first developing the story, the title was actually Decalcomania. I approached the two families in the film, their relationship on an equal plane; they were on an equal stance in the story. But as the story shifts focus to the poor family, to the narrative following their point of view, the dynamic in the story changes.
This may be a dangerous comparison but I often question whether or not the members of the poor family in this film are the parasites. I understand where this question comes from. But in this story, they are conmen and they do bad things but they are not the true villains in the story. They are characters in the grey area. My focus is on the situations and the horrible system that forces them to be the parasites of this story. This is how the title came to be.
The members of the poor family looked much smarter than those of the rich family. Was that by design?
The poor characters in this film are actually quite smart and capable. You'd think that with those skills and abilities, they would actually do pretty well if they had a job. But the issue is they don't have a job; there is not enough employment for them. I think that is the economic situation that we are facing in Korea and also across the world. If we had a proper system set up, they would do perfectly fine but they are pushed to a corner and driven to get involved in these dangerous situations.
In the film, Song Kang-ho, says at one point that 500 college graduates applied for a security guard job. This is not an exaggeration; this is actually an article that was published in Korea. Of course, with the new administration, our economy has been getting better but that was actually how things were pretty recently.
Tell us a little bit about the motif of smell that you used. It is one of the most moving parts in the film.
Smell is something you can only sense when you are very close to the person and it's not a topic that one can easily talk about. I think that's very closely related to the entire atmosphere of this film. The film puts a microscope in the most private parts of a person in a very intimate distance. In reality, it is very difficult for the poor and the wealthy to come together physically. Even in the same space, they are always segregated – in planes, you have the regular people in economy class and you have the first class. Even the schools and the restaurants they visit are very different. But the only situation where they can come so intimately together, where they can smell each other, is through those house employment jobs like tutoring or driving or a housemaid.
I wanted to create this very intimate feeling, where the audience could almost sense the smell too. Cinema is a visual and auditory medium but I relied a lot on my actors to show very detailed acting to almost fool the audience into thinking that they can sense the smell.
Your recent films Snowpiercer and Okja used elaborate visual effects. But Parasite is more of a human drama. Were you looking to get back to something that was simpler on a technical level, where you can delve into acting and human dynamics?
In Okja you have around 300 shots of the pig. Not only did that require a lot of money but also a lot of energy from the director. With this one [Parasite], I was able to spend that energy on the characters and the nuances in the narrative. I had a great experience with Okja and I have no regrets but with Parasite it felt like I was able to look at the film through a microscope. I was able to pay attention to more details and that was what was great about this experience. I am looking to pursue films of this style and size in the future. Frankly speaking, there are also quite a lot of visual effects in Parasite also.. You just cannot make out but they are there.
The choreography of the film is so precise. The way the characters move around the house, the way the action unfolds. When you were writing the script did you draw out a plan of the house or build a model so you could plot everything?
Yes, because I am the writer-director. During the screenwriting, I made the whole structure or the blocking lines for the characters in the movie. This meant that I already had a basic structure of the house when I finished the script. This is the reason the production designer of the film struggled a lot. I had all these requests for the structure of the house. It was really important that when one character is doing something in the house, the other characters shouldn't be able to see him/her. This idea of visibility and non-visibility within the house was very important and so the production designer took my sketch to an actual architect for advice and the architect said that no one builds houses this way. 'This is ridiculous.' [laughs] Between my requests and the architect's advice, the production designer struggled quite a bit.
Did you then use a pre-existing house or a series of sets?
We built it. All the houses – the poor house, the rich house and the neighbours –are production design. And then we just poured sewage water over the poor house. Aside from the street, it was all on set.
The story reminded me of Hanyo [The Housemaid] because of the rich family with a big house and somebody that comes into the family and it gets intense.
Some of the DVDs that I took out again as a cinephile during pre-production of this film were The Housemaid by Kim Ki-young, The Servant by Joseph Losey and The Beast Must Die by Claude Chabrol. Kim Ki-young is my mentor, so I always repeatedly watch his films. This film is also incredibly influenced by him. We like to call Parasite 'staircase cinema' because the staircase is very important in the story and that is definitely one of the influences from Kim Ki-young. I would really recommend all of you to watch The Insect Woman by Kim Ki-young. The Housemaid is very exposed to the Western audience but The Insect Woman is a real masterpiece too and that film also features a very interesting house structure.
Do you like to limit yourself within limited spaces? A structure of working within restricted, defined spaces similar to Snowpiercer?
I do. I think I get more excited when I have these limitations of enclosed and almost claustrophobic spaces. I get anxious when I feel I have an infinite number of spaces that I can just pick and choose. What was challenging about Parasite was that 90% of the story is told in the two houses – the rich house and the poor house. I feel like that allowed me to look at the spaces through a microscope and really make fine slices of these spaces. I took great joy in that.
Song Kang-ho is a favourite of yours. But Sun-kyun Lee is new to you. How did you do the casting of the film? The connection and chemistry between them was really great.
When we were shooting, the cinematographer one day told me, 'You know, director Bong, this is our first time filming rich characters.' Even in Mother and The Host, my films have always featured poor characters. This was our first time filming a rich family and a rich house. Even Captain America [Chris Evans] was dressed in rags in Snowpiercer. Because the character of the father (Mr Park played by Sun-kyun Lee) in the rich family was the key point of this family, I wanted to find a new actor for this character. Of course, that character is also in the grey zone. Just because he's rich, I didn't want him to be conventionally malicious or greedy like the rich characters you normally see. I wanted him to feel sophisticated and, even if it's just on the surface, modern and with great taste. I feel that Sun-kyun Lee is a great actor.
The first hour of Parasite moves like a traditional story and then it gets really crazy. Did you map out the whole thing from the beginning or did you dive into the madness while you were writing?
Everything was planned out in advance. In the first hour, you see the poor family slowly infiltrating the rich house and, of course, in that infiltration there is a lot of fun. It is bad but it feels like you are committing this crime with them – and that is what happens on the surface. The real important layer behind the first hour is that the audience learns the structure of the rich house. They are also educated on the characters and details in the characters. Because the first hour spends time to really built up the setting and the characters for the audience, the last hour we can explode and rage on in an unexpected way.
Do ordinary South Korean people talk more about the domestic economic problems or Kim Jong Un? Which is the bigger topic?
They are both equally worrisome. But in terms of what we really feel under our skin are the economic issues. Of course, we do worry about North Korea and want peace to come and our relationship to improve but it's not something that happens next to me. We just hope that the politicians will take care of this issue. But it doesn't really affect how much money is in my pocket, how much is going out of my pocket, and the economy is something your really feel; it's right next to your own body. Like the family in Parasite, I think economy is more of an immediate issue.
Especially with the relationship between North and South Korea, with the new administration, our relationship has definitely improved and we do feel like we are progressing towards peace. I think all the people are anticipating an improvement in the relationship. We think Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump will do a good job of that. Both of them are fairly unique. [everyone laughs]
Do you think that satire is perhaps a better way to put the economic disparity issue across than social dramas like the ones Ken Loach makes?
I admire Ken Loach. His film, Kes is one of my all-time favourite best 50 films. Ultimately, I think of myself as a genre filmmaker. I really enjoy the excitement and anticipation that comes from genre conventions regardless of whether you satisfy or break those conventions. I do like to work within that boundary; I don't like the social issues coming out of the film like a nail that is protruding out. I want there to be enjoyment. In that process, naturally, the satire seeps through and melds into the story like faint rain.