Sibling Subterfuge: Choi Woo-Shik and Park So-Dam on Parasite
Bong Joon Ho may have shifted his subject from genetically engineered super pigs (Okja) and setting from a speeding, class-stratified train (Snowpiercer), but it’d be wrong to assign his Palme d’Or winning Parasite to a new league of subtlety. That’s not a knock — vulgarity is the name of the game for this “Korean New Wave,” in which Bong, and now Parasite, have an evolving role. Bong’s metaphors have shrunk in size for his latest, but they’ve increased in number, becoming part of a loud, meta, and self-parodying dialogue.
Ki-woo (Choi Woo-Shik), the son in Parasite‘s working-class family, interacts with the film’s metaphors most directly and is the only one that acknowledges them aloud. But every character here is an archetypal cog in the film’s evolving social commentary. Ki-Woo’s family, the Kim’s, infiltrate the home of the wealthy Park family by sabotaging and replacing their servantry. Leeching off that wealth becomes more dangerous as the Kim’s become more intertwined in the life of their new employers, and in that waltz the film plays on our expectations of who exactly the titular (and non-pluralized) Parasite might be.
Woo-Shik and Park So-dam (Ki-jeong) play the sibling infiltrators who forge university degrees and cocksureness to gain their respective employment in the Park home. In our discussion, in which Park So-dam referred to a translator and Woo-Shik spoke directly in English, the two denote their collaboration with Bong and some of the cultural differences between Korean and Western film productions and audiences. (Note that the final section of the interview, which is marked, contains spoilers.)
Filmmaker: How do you acclimate to this slightly elevated style of acting?
Choi Woo-Shik: I don’t know, because I’ve done other work in Korea that was much bigger. Korean dramas. Sometimes in those K-Dramas you go overboard [laughs]. So compared to that I don’t think Parasite was really “up there” for us. And he didn’t actually limit us to any one acting style. It all just sort of blended together naturally.
Park So-Dam: I wouldn’t say this was any more over-the-top or expressive than the normal way I would act. The way the synopses and storyboards worked made it so that we would focus on that moment and that moment only. That was very exciting as an actress. It allowed me to be totally immersed in a given situation. You can’t ask more from a director.
Filmmaker: Altogether with Bong do you discuss the film’s conceits and “metaphors” or is it best not to bog yourself down in all that?
Woo-Shik: Because there are so many metaphors: stairs, rain, flooding, the stone, director Bong didn’t actually tell us the answers to what any of it means. We had our individual thoughts about these kinds of metaphors and at the very end, when we finished the movie, we had a talk about it. But we all had different ideas.
So-Dam: Whenever I asked director Bong a question about it he’d never give me a straight answer. He’d answer my question with a question, ask me, “What do you think about it?” so that we were building that answer together, rather than him just having an answer to give. For me it was a more collaborative experience to understand. But in that process I felt he actually knew exactly what he wanted, that he knew what that answer was but he just wouldn’t give it to me. So it was very interesting. Because of that I could trust that he would get what he wanted out of me, so I would just play with that and try a different approach to every scene and every take to further understand.
Filmmaker: Was there any special rehearsal process between you two and Kang ho-song (Kim Ki-taek) and Hye-jin Jang (Kim Chung-sook) who play your parents?
Woo-Shik: The difference between Hollywood films and Korean films is that actors don’t really get their own trailers. We all stayed in the same hotel. On set we have one green room for all of the actors. So we’d go there, we’d eat dinner together, go out for a casual drink and talk about the scene we did that day. So we didn’t try to make the bonding happen, the bond just developed on set.
So-Dam: The actor who plays Mr. Park, Lee Sun Gyun, describes it as a package trip to a foreign country, because you’re together with all of these people from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to bed every day for the entire shoot.
Filmmaker: Have you worked on others sets where that bonding process didn’t fall into place so luckily and naturally?
Woo-Shik: Sometimes, when actors have different opinions and it can’t be talked out it can become awkward or uncomfortable, but somehow it usually works out in the end despite that. You can’t always be perfect.
So-Dam: There have been projects where the bonding process felt a bit forced, even if we eventually got there in the end. But for the Parasite team everything felt very natural. Even in a shot where I’m just walking with a peach I stole from the store it felt natural because everyone’s so in character.
Filmmaker: Are you conscious of the comedic tonal shifts, or can it never be that way? You have to be in the moment and the comedy’s hsituational?
Woo Shik: We are working in a lot of genres, but in the scenes that people are laughing at we’re actually being very serious in character. The situations happen to be funny. But in Korea we have different points where people laugh compared to here. You know when the lady rolls down the stairs? In Korea we don’t laugh at that scene, we go, “Oh shit!” But at Cannes and New York people were laughing. So there are certainly some cultural differences. [laughs]
So-Dam: This was the first time I saw the film with an American audience, so I was also very surprised when people laughed at that scene. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Can you talk about playing characters that are, for much of the film, acting themselves, and about playing that dual role?
Woo-Shik: Ki-Woo lacks vigor in his real life. He doesn’t have vigor when he’s printing out his test. He knows he’s already failed four times to get into a university. He knows he needs vigor, but he doesn’t have it. So when he’s tutoring Park da-hye he’s acting like he has that vigor to her. It was really fun acting in two ways for one role.
So-Dam: I felt like I was playing two different roles with Ki-Jeong and Jessica. Everything from the way I sat, to how I walked, to how strong my walk was and said things were completely different. So it felt like two different roles, and it’s not common for an actress to have two roles in one movie. So the best part was when I was lying and bullshitting my way through Yeon-Kyo.
Filmmaker: [to Park So-Dam] Was Jessica a reflection of Ki-Jeong the way Ki-Woo’s alter ego had the vigor he wish he had?
So-Dam: I think Ki-Jeong is such a talented person as an artist, but that there was never a right moment, or nothing ever clicked for her in her life. She failed a lot of different tests or auditions so it would’ve been easy to make the character depressed with all that she’s going and gone through. But I saw Ki-Jeong with a strong mentality, one that wouldn’t get bogged down with the small failures she endured. I feel that when she meets Park da-song (the son) from the family it came to her that she finally had a way of using her talent. I was really happy for Ki-Jeong, and she was happy for herself as well.
Filmmaker: Can you think of specific moments where your acting was directly functional to the story? You had to sell something to drive a character trait or story beat?
Park So-Dam: I think the scene where I’m pushing forward the story is… The scene where Ki-Jeong is sitting on the toilet during the flood smoking a cigarette. I wasn’t sure if it made sense for my character to take a cigarette break in that setting. But when I came to set that day it felt natural. I felt with every fiber of my being it was the right thing to do. The reality of the home flooding and her smoking atop the toilet is that it’s the only time in the film that Ki-Jeong gets to let go and not feel pressured to be something. That was very sad to portray at the same time.
Woo-Shik: I think for me it’s when Ki-Woo is talking to Min (Seo-Joon Park) in front of the store drinking Soju. Do you know what Soju is?
Filmmaker: Oh, yes.
Woo-Shik: [Sizes up a bottle of Soju] Green bottle. But that’s the moment that it all started and Ki-Woo didn’t know what was going to happen to him afterwards. It was really important for me to act as naive as possible talking to a friend and make it believable. It was fun, Min is actually a good friend of mine in real life so it was fun and felt very natural talking to him in front of camera.
[Spoilers in question below]
Filmmaker: Do you both have theories about why your character [gestures to Park So-Dam] dies and yours [gestures to Woo-Shik] doesn’t? In the scheme of all the ideas, I mean.
Woo-Shik: My personal theory is that the reason Ki-Woo survives is to take care of the stone. Somehow it had to get to the mountain. At the end I bring it there. But I don’t think it happens like that. I believe the stone is still in the basement. The moment Ki-Woo puts it on the mountain is the moment we’re unsure whether or not we’re seeing his fantasy or not. In order for him to get the stone to the mountain he had to somehow get it from the basement, but he can’t right? So, I don’t know, I guess to show people that things are going to go well. To take care of the stone and his family.
So-Dam: I think a lot of people expect Ki-Woo to die but not Ki-Jeong. A lot of people ask me if I think it’s unfair that my character died off and not his. [laughs] But I liked working with director Bong to make Ki-Jeong seem like the character that was not going to die. She’s the kind of girl that survives. Everything that comes to mind, Ki-Jeong says it. She needs to look like a girl that could survive anything. It helped me portray Ki-Jeong as the best Ki-Jeong she could be instead of worrying about why I was going to die. [laughs]
Woo-Shik: I think it’s all part of the twist at the end.
Filmmaker: [To Woo-Shik] Your father (Kang-ho Song) advises against constructing a plan throughout the film, but in the very end Ki-Woo does just that. Is that a victory?
Woo-Shik: Well, I don’t know. Ki-Woo is always dedicated to his plans. Even though his dad tells him no plan’s a good plan, plans are the one thing that motivates Ki-Woo to move. So I think he actually needed that plan to survive without his father.