They Came From Within: Bong Joon-ho on Parasite
“This is so metaphorical!” Ki-woo’s metatextual reaction to the unlikely gift of a stone from his friend Min early in Bong Joon- ho’s Palme d’Or–winning Parasite isn’t the film’s most startling moment, but it’s an early jolt that both sets and undermines viewer expectations. Ki-woo (wide-eyed Choi Woo-shik—Okja, Train to Busan) lives in an underground apartment with his underemployed family, including humbled but unvanquished father Ki-taek (Bong regular Song Kang-ho, unsurprisingly great) and scheming sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam, cynical and hilarious). When Ki-woo becomes a tutor for the daughter of a rich family, the action settles into that family’s stunning modern abode, and the lines appear to be set for a straight-up class-war narrative—perhaps a “social thriller,” even. But the foundations turn out to be much less stable than you expect.
After two CGI-heavy films with Hollywood heavyweights, one might have expected Bong’s return to Korea and a smaller production to be a retreat. And it’s true that Parasite feels much more restrained than Okja or Snowpiercer, from its subtle, layered production design to the distinctive yet complementary performances. But far from returning to his comfort zone, Bong has instead stepped outside the reassuring lines of genre to create his most original film yet. Full of unexpected surprises, Parasite courts then defies categorization while being unequivocally, 100% undiluted Bong Joon-ho, a document of a director working at the height of his powers.
We caught up the day before the Palme d’Or ceremony, after rapturous audience and press reactions but before Parasite’s awards fate was clear. Bong (who speaks some English but largely responded in Korean through a translator) had been hoping to watch new films by Tarantino and Bellocchio but, overwhelmed by press demands, had yet to see anything else at Cannes. Like Tarantino, Bong requested that the press avoid discussing spoilers, so our interview generally eschewed the story of Parasite. It was only as we wrapped that I got to mention my wife’s reaction to a key revelation, where she involuntarily exclaimed “Holy shit!” Laughing, Bong replied: “That’s what I want!”
Filmmaker: Song Kang-ho’s character says near the end of the film, “If you make a plan, life never works out that way.” Is that how you feel as a director?
Bong: (laughs) I’m very obsessed with plans. I usually try to stick with the plans, and it does work out. It stems from my own anxiety. So, in terms of the anxiety and fear the characters in this film feel, I pretty much feel similarly. Of course, whether or not plans come to life is a different question.
Filmmaker: Now that it’s your seventh film, do you feel any less anxious, or just as anxious as every film before?
Bong: For this film, I felt relatively less anxious and more at peace, not because I came back to directing a Korean film but because I came back to this size. Okja and Snowpiercer were very big-budgeted films, but this one was similar to Mother. I once again realized how much the project or scale of a film impacts how I feel.
Filmmaker: Does that impact the films you want to make going forward?
Bong: I have two projects in plans right now, one in English and one in Korean, but regardless of the language I want to stick to this scale, as I get a lot of satisfaction.
Filmmaker: Tell me about an average day on set. What’s the first thing you do when you get to set?
Bong: I eat. I have a very strong obsession with food. I’m very sensitive to lunch hours and snack time on set. In particular, in Korea we have a very developed late-night food culture, so when we’re shooting late night it’s important. I’m sure you were expecting some cinematic answer! (laughs)
Filmmaker: Food’s important on set! What kind of food do you eat?
Bong: Usually coffee and pastries, then we eat Korean food for dinner.
Filmmaker: Tell me more about the set of Parasite. It has been described as an “open set.”
Bong: For the rich family’s house [the main location in Parasite], we basically built the first floor of the building on a vacant lot. We created the trees, the grass and the yard. The second floor and basement were set in a different studio. Of the sunlight you see in the movie in the living room of the rich house, 90 percent is real sunshine. The image of sunlight was very important for the film, so even for the poor house, we built it in an outdoor swimming pool, not on a soundstage. The sunlight you see in the opening scene, where the camera pans down to the sun, is real.
Filmmaker: Why is that important for you? For most directors, the weather is a nightmare, and it’s the most difficult thing to plan.
Bong: The cinematographer [Hong Kyung-pyo, who also shot Snowpiercer, Burning and The Wailing] and I have the same taste of being obsessed with real light and sunlight. Of course, artificial lighting works great as well, but there’s this excitement you feel when you get to film natural light. That’s why at the end of Mother, the last scene where the sunlight penetrates the bus is real sun, even though there’s only 30 minutes a day where you can do that.
Filmmaker: Burning came to mind, not only because of the sun but because of the class commentary, but whereas that film has a stronger moral cast to its characters, yours seems more noncommittal—
Bong: No angels, no devils.
Filmmaker: Even compared to Snowpiercer or Okja.
Bong: I wanted this film to seem a little more realistic. I was tired of seeing rich people who were always bad and greedy and poor people who were always nice and helping each other. I was tired of that dichotomy. I think reality is always vague and ambiguous, and good vs. evil—there’s a very fine line of how those two can be separated.
Filmmaker: I think that realism comes through in the color palette of the film as well, which feels more muted than your last two films. How did you develop the color?
Bong: The colors are realistic and what we see around our daily lives, but as an accent we wanted a scarlet-orange color. So, when you see the character of Min bringing that stone to the poor family, he feels like a figure from an extraterrestrial world, someone who lives in another universe because he’s rich. When they’re drinking soju, you see this warmish orange streetlamp behind him. Also, in the kitchen of the rich house, right next to the black fateful door leading to the basement, you see the orange case. That color is pretty but also has a subtle neurotic anxious sense, and it was used to emphasize the door in the kitchen.
Filmmaker: As a writer/director, you’re writing a screenplay, but you’re developing other ideas simultaneously, such as your camera treatment. When we’re in the basement, you have locked shots, but when we arrive at the rich house, the characters suddenly fly freely. How much visual planning do you do during the screenplay writing process?
Bong: As I write the script, I’m already developing sketches for elements of the film. As I’m a director, I finish a script to convey in text what I want, but even before I write it down, images come to me, auditory elements, even before I put it in text. Especially for the rich house, all those strange events, it’s very much tied to the actual space of the house. So, the basic structure of the house was set as I wrote the script because otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible to propel the narrative forward. So, while I was writing the script, I sketched out the house and handed it to the production designer.
Filmmaker: Who is the first collaborator you share the script with besides your producers? Your production designer, your cinematographer?
Bong: My wife! (laughs) She’s the first person to read it and gives me cruel feedback. She’s just like, “What the hell is this?” But thankfully for Parasite, her reviewing was very good. She did ask whether the story was too dark.
Filmmaker: And did she feel that way about the finished product?
Bong: She really enjoyed the movie! She’s here in Cannes.
Filmmaker: How long have you been married for?
Bong: Since 1995.
Filmmaker: What’s the biggest disagreement the two of you have had on one of your movies?
Bong: The Host. She hated The Host. Hated the script. (laughs) But she really loved the script and movie of Mother. This was her favorite script since Mother.
Filmmaker: When do you select the music for your films? Do you pick tracks in advance and storyboard to them? I’m thinking in particular of that striking percussion track near the middle.
Bong: We actually start creating samples of the music in editing. The composer [Jung Jaeil] was invited to set, but it was later that he actually made it. It’s the same composer as Okja. Of course, the music is very different. With the percussion track you mention, I made the request for that track to be bolder, as I thought the audience would be falling asleep around that point and I wanted to wake them up. The part where you hear the Handel, that part we called The Belt of Trust. The actual story is them lying and committing fraud, but the tone of the music is elegant, and we thought that would work great.
Filmmaker: The performances are strong across the board in this film. One actress who stood out in particular was Park So-dam, who’s never done a role like this before. And even with Song Kang-ho, who you’ve worked with many times before, this is a very different role. You obviously aren’t casting actors to do just what they’ve done before, so what do you look for when you talk to an actor to know you can work with them?
Bong: There is a way to cast the actors after the script is completed, and there is also a way to set the actors as the beginning point and build up the script around them. That second method gives me more peace. For Parasite, the father and the son, I already knew these actors would play these parts. With Park So-dam, when I put her face next to the son’s, I was so surprised at how similar they looked and went on to see the indie films she was in and became certain she was a great actress. I tend to watch indie films, short films, or even theater shows these actors are in. I don’t really trust auditions. After seeing their past work, I just meet with them and have a small talk about personal things. That’s how I observe the actors.
Filmmaker: Do you do rehearsals with actors?
Bong: I don’t like rehearsals, and I also don’t like actors who do a ton of prep before they come to set. I really encourage actors to improvise on set, and I try to create a very comfortable atmosphere. Sometimes, I myself change the dialogue on set based on the general atmosphere, and it’s quite hard to work with actors who don’t really work well in that setting. I like actors who are flexible and spontaneous, and thankfully all the actors in Parasite worked well in that setting.
Filmmaker: And how does that work with storyboarding and camera blocking?
Bong: Of course, in terms of the physical blocking. I guide all the actors and make sure it fits. So, with that we definitely rehearse based on how the camera moves and the frame size. But once that stage is set for the actors, in terms of subtle nuances, rhythms and the details of their action, in those elements I encourage improvisation.
Filmmaker: This is your second film with Okja editor Yang Jinmo. What do you look for in an editor, and why did you work with him again?
Bong: He was also the on-set editor on Snowpiercer, which is a common role in Korea. I really like his detailed and subtle sense of rhythm. I don’t shoot a lot of shots. Other than Snowpiercer, none of my films have gone over a thousand shots. Other directors routinely surpass 1,500, 2,000 shots—for me it’s relatively less. That’s why you have to be more cautious in adjusting the rhythm of each shot or sequence. I don’t really work well with editors who are super-bold in their cutting because the way we build up scenes and sequences is very different. Some editors are very obsessed with tempo and shuffling the shots. My films aren’t structured that way, and the tail at the end of shots, after an event unfolds, is very important. The editor has to be very careful and generous and calm in taking care of that, and I think Yang Jinmo understands that well. He never says, “Oh, let’s just cut it here, skip to there, shuffle things here and there.”
Filmmaker: You watch a lot of independent films, and you were on the Camera d’Or jury in Cannes in 2011, so you see a lot of first films. Do you see common flaws in those films, or do you have advice you would give young filmmakers?
Bong: It’s hard to generalize, but sometimes when I see short films by young Korean filmmakers these days, I wonder if I’m watching cinema or YouTube. It’s difficult to define what that difference is, but I believe there is a certain weight and a certain approach that is exclusive to cinema. So, I hope that young directors watch a lot of old classical films because you can really see when the language of cinema was first defined and established. I myself really love watching black-and-white movies from the 1930s to the ’50s because you can really feel the essence of cinema! The essence of shots, the camera movements: the original essence of cinema.
Filmmaker: If you were to start your own film school, what five films would you show in the first week?
Bong: Kim Ki-young, The Housemaid; Hitchcock, Frenzy; Clouzot, The Wages of Fear; Kurosawa Akira, High and Low; John Ford, How Green Was My Valley. Hmmm. Very strange taste. (laughs)
Filmmaker: You make films about social issues, and there are many filmmakers who make films about social issues in different registers, documentaries and such. Do you think films can change things, and do you make your films to change things, or do you use social issues as a setting for the aspects of film that excite you?
Bong: For me, I really pursue cinematic beauty in itself. I don’t like when film becomes a tool for something. Of course, some films do bring change and influence people, but I think by that point it’s already beyond the director’s intentions. I don’t like to create a film to change the world, and I don’t think there’s a need for directors to be obsessed with that kind of need.
Filmmaker: Park Chan-wook recently directed The Little Drummer Girl. You’ve stuck to the feature film format. Do you feel committed to feature films, or would you consider episodic work?
Bong: I have received a lot of offers, especially from my American agent. They’re like, “If you really don’t want to, at least do a pilot.” And there have been terrific TV series like David Fincher’s Mindhunter. But for some reason I’m not confident with that kind of rhythm. And, of course, director Park had a really difficult time shooting Drummer Girl because when you shoot for TV, you have to shoot at a much faster pace. You have to shoot almost twice as fast. I’m a director who likes to take his time and shoot at a slower pace, so if I were to do a TV series, I’d be fired in the first week.
Filmmaker: If you could step back in time and talk to the director of Barking Dogs Never Bite on his first day on set, what would you tell him?
Bong: “You make me very nostalgic.” (laughs) It was exactly 20 years ago. September 1999. It was a rainy day. It was a very simple scene where the actress Bae Doona was walking under the umbrella in the rain. Maybe I would shout to myself, “Hurry up! Be quick!”