The director talks bringing class warfare to the box office and how he’d want Ken Loach to direct a British version of the Korean tragicomedy
The chaos of a Bong Joon Ho movie is poetic and precise. The South Korean auteur, whose films include Okja, Memories of Murder and Snowpiercer, hand-draws his own storyboards, and obsesses over each striking image for months, if not years, in advance of production. Thus, in Parasite, the director’s latest genre-bender, nearly every object is worthy of deep analysis, whether it’s a bowl of peaches waiting to be weaponised, or it’s a sirloin steak served on top of instant noodles. One character even picks up an ordinary-looking rock and, in a meta joke, exclaims, “So metaphorical!”
Parasite, then, is a film designed for multiple viewings, especially if each time the ride is with an unsuspecting audience – the gulps, the guffaws, the gasps of “what the fuck!” At Cannes, the dynamic thriller was unanimously awarded the Palme d’Or, and yet the international takeover was only just beginning: Parasite has since become an unlikely box office sensation; it was named the best movie of 2019 by several publications (including us); and, after a long wait, it’s finally out in the UK with multiple Oscar nominations to its name.
When I meet Bong and his translator, Sharon Choi, downstairs in London’s Korean Cultural Centre, it’s in early December, a few days after the pair appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The YouTube clip has surpassed a million views, and a tweet praising Choi has received several hundred retweets. The sheer goodwill for Bong, his films, and anyone associated with him, is astounding and richly deserved. Google #BongHive if you need the evidence.
“At first I said I wouldn’t do it, because I was a little scared,” Bong says about Fallon’s chat show. “But the distributor and my publicist were like, ‘Please, it’s short!’ I barely managed to do it. It’s on YouTube and people have reached out to me about it, but I’m too scared to watch it. I’ll probably watch it in three years. I’m so embarrassed!
Bong is being humble – the only way it could have gone better is if he had shamed Fallon for that time he tussled Trump’s hair. Noticeably, when Fallon asks Bong to summarise Parasite, the director responds with: “I’d like to say as little as possible here because the film is best when you go into it cold.” At the press screening, audience members, including myself, contorted their bodies in weird positions due to the sustained tension, and one particular twist sent shockwaves through the room. Yet it’s possible to avidly read “Film Twitter” and still not know what unspools in the second half. Such is the respect for Parasite, it’s the most talked-about movie in which no one publicly talks about what happens in it.
At first, Parasite appears to be a non-violent home-invasion thriller in the mould of In the House, Teorema or La Cérémonie. Our hapless heroes are the Kim family, a poor foursome whose adult son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik), scams his way into tutoring a spoilt teenage girl at her obscenely fancy house. As the Park family have two children, they require a second tutor, and so Ki-woo recommends Jessica, a classmate of his cousin – but in reality, Jessica is his sister, Ki-jeong (Park So Dam). The next step is to somehow sneak their parents, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin) and Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho, a Bong regular), into the Park household. Such is the way of capitalism and an unjust employment market: obtaining four low-paid jobs requires careful coordination between four criminal masterminds.
In his early 20s, Bong also tutored for a posh family in Seoul, and he would, like Ki-woo, inspect their lavish house as if it were a glimpse into another universe. They sacked him after two months. “I lost contact with them,” the director says. “The little boy I taught is probably in his 40s now. He might not actually remember me, even if he watches Parasite or sees my interviews.”
“A stone carries this uncanny sense of being able to transform into various things. At once, it can be a weapon, and then the next, a beautiful decoration” – Bong Joon Ho
During its opening stretch, Parasite operates like a slick screwball comedy, introducing a series of lies that multiply on top of each other. There isn’t a dull moment. Bong doesn’t dumb down the intricacies of the plot, and a number of Korean cultural references are left unexplained for westerners. For instance, the aforementioned “metaphorical” rock – otherwise known as a scholar’s stone – is a gift handed to the Kim family. Ki-woo cradles the symbolic present like a child, while his mother mutters, “He should’ve brought food.”
“My father, who’s passed now, he used to collect them,” Bong says. “We would go to mountains and streams, and search for stones. It was quite a trend in my parents’ generation, but my son’s generation probably don’t know what scholar’s stones are.”
He adds, “A stone carries this uncanny sense of being able to transform into various things. At once, it can be a weapon, and then the next, a beautiful decoration. You could say this film is about transformation, where these characters transform into fake college students, fake art therapists and fake housekeepers.”
I ask if an Oscar is like a scholar’s stone. “Do you what the golden surface is made of? Plastic?” He laughs. “It is a beautiful object, I will say.”
WARNING: THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS
What Parasite transforms into is another film. It has the same characters, the same themes, and the same two locations – but the social satire, and its upstairs/downstairs class warfare, deepens with thrilling consequences. Originally, Bong envisioned the story as a play, which partially explains why so much of the action unfolds under the Parks’ rooftop.
“If this were a stage production, the rich house and the poor house would be situated on a rotating stage,” the director notes, gesticulating with his hands. “As the story progresses towards the end, both houses would elevate and leave room for the bunker underneath.” He adds in English, chuckling, without a translator, “It would have cost a lot.”
In interviews, Bong has alluded to the second half of Parasite arriving late in the writing process. The plot shift is a surprise to the viewer because it was a surprise to Bong, too. However, from what I can gather, I’m the first person to ask him what the original ending for the film was.
“I spent four months writing the actual script, and around four years developing the idea,” Bong says. “The first half was always the same – the process of this family infiltrating the rich home. But one version of the ending I had was that this family would, in the process of returning home, be all randomly killed, one by one. And then the family would completely take over the house. They would lock themselves up in the house like hikikomori, which is the Japanese term for people who don’t leave their homes at all. Then the rich family’s relatives would come in. It was an absurd and surrealistic ending.”
So it would have been like the hikikomori storyline of his 2008 short film, Shaking Tokyo? “Yes, the poor family became a group of hikikomori in the big, rich house,” Bong replies, switching from Korean to English in his answer. “They spend a wonderful time there. They have food and everything. And then during that night of heavy rain, they dig in the garden, and bury the four rich family members in the garden. It’s very surreal.”
Bong compares the original ending to The Exterminating Angel, the 1962 Luis Buñuel movie in which bourgeois dinner party guests are psychologically unable to leave the building. “The mood is like that. So in this alternate version, there was no man in the bunker, the original house never came back, and the housekeeper never came back. It was more simple and extreme.”
Although the Park family could not be described as hikikomori, they exist in their own privileged, chauffeur-driven bubble and are comically out of touch – the parents’ sexual kinks involve their own kind of poverty porn. (Cho Yeo Jeong, who plays the Parks’ gullible mother, is the film’s standout comic performer.) Likewise, their 10-year-old son, Da-song, receives private art lessons but has little life experience. In a cruel joke, his tutor, “Jessica”, is a natural actor (she could win an Oscar, her brother exclaims) and a Photoshop wizard who will never receive the same opportunities to develop as an artist.
“If a British writer or director requests to do a remake with British actors, I would definitely say yes, because, in providing commentary on modern capitalism, Britain has directors like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh who bring such realistic textures” – Bong Joon Ho
Which raises the question: could someone like Da-song produce meaningful art if he’s kept insulated? “If we reconstruct the narrative from the little boy’s perspective, he’s inflicted with a double trauma,” Bong says. “They have a huge garden party for him, and he has a trauma recovery cake. But in the process of presenting the cake, he witnesses his favourite teacher getting stabbed, and he passes out. When he wakes up, he’ll realise that his father passed away as well. If there were to be a sequel to Parasite, you could imagine how different his life would be after this incident.
“If he uses that trauma and transforms it in a positive way, it could give him the seed to becoming a good artist. But more than anything, he would need to seek treatment first, because it’s a huge wound he’s been inflicted with.”
As with Bong’s previous movies, there’s no guessing what will happen, or even who will survive to the end. Take The Host, in which the family’s cute young daughter is murdered by a mutant fish; the slow reveal of a dead 13-year-old protagonist is gobsmacking because it goes against what decades of Hollywood movies have taught us. “In Parasite, you have this unpredictable tragedy at the end,” Bong explains. “But once it happens, it almost feels inevitable, as if none of the characters could have avoided it. It’s a contradiction where the audience feel it’s unpredictable and inevitable.
“Of the 10 main characters, four die in the end. There was a moment when they could have potentially avoided the massacre – when the Kim family’s mother and daughter come to their senses, and talk about how they should negotiate with the couple in the bunker. But from a slip of fate, they aren’t able to go down, and miss the opportunity to avoid that tragedy. Of the Kim family, the daughter is the smartest and most reasonable character, and she is the one that has to die in the end. It’s even sadder when her death comes.”
Despite the specificity of Parasite to Seoul (the major architectural twist is explained by the tension between North and South Korea), the movie has transfixed audiences around the world. Bong’s accurate explanation is that we all live in a world called capitalism, and that the themes of inequality are powerful enough to resonate in any country. But Bong has always raged against the machine: Snowpiercer allegorised corrupt governments, The Host critiqued American foreign policy, Memories of Murder depicted immoral policemen, and so on. It might just be that in 2019 and 2020 we all need Bong more than ever.
Luckily, the director is already plotting another two movies. One, he says, is a Korean-language horror. “The other is based on a small incident that happened in London in 2016. It was an article I coincidentally came upon. So now I’m in London, the city feels a little different now that I’m thinking about that project.” Could he imagine a London version of Parasite? “If a British writer or director requests to do a remake with British actors, I would definitely say yes, because, in providing commentary on modern capitalism, Britain has directors like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh who bring such realistic textures. It would be interesting to see a Parasite set in London.”
As Parasite is so layered and the translation process effectively halves the timeslot, I inevitably have too many questions. For instance, how did he come up with Jessica’s jingle? Is it ironic that Hollywood is embracing a movie about wage gaps? Does he play chess? Is he still vegan after the making of Okja? How does he feel now that the serial killer who inspired Memories of Murder has been caught? Will there be a black-and-white version of Parasite like there was for Mother? As he writes his screenplays in coffee shops, is the Wi-Fi storyline semi-autobiographical? With the scholar’s stone, is he making fun of movies that rely on overstated metaphors?
Sure, the rock is metaphorical (the translation is “so symbolic!” in the For Your Consideration script sent out to Oscar voters), but Parasite is direct with its critique of social inequality and an economic system that’s rooted in unfairness. It’s not a horror movie where a monster can be conveniently called “grief”, “oppression” or whatever feel-good message its director wishes to mention on a press tour. Rather, Parasite presents an urgent problem that’s affecting millions of lives, and Bong happens to spin it into a hugely entertaining melange of slapstick comedy, gut-wrenching tragedy and anxiety-fuelled action.
Nevertheless, Parasite doesn’t explain how a broken system can fix itself, and nor does it attempt to. Is it that Bong doesn’t want to be didactic? Or does he not personally know how to solve society? “I don’t think my capabilities reach far enough to prove an answer to these things,” the director says. “What I am good at is exposing the current situation that we find ourselves in. It’s almost like a suicide bomb where I am able to convey the current issues we face, and that they are difficult to overcome. This can make the audience feel very dark and pessimistic, but at the same time it’s very honest.
“I think the stories allow you to face what’s going on in a very realistic way, and to go through a cinematic cathartic moment. Okja is similar, where you have a girl initiating this deal with the golden pig. It’s something that’s not quite like her. In the end, she only manages to save one little pig from the chain of death. She comes back to that beautiful mountain but something is different about her. It’s almost as if the screams she heard in the slaughterhouse are still hovering around her ears. I think the ending of Parasite conveys a similar sense.”
Parasite opens in UK cinemas on February 7