Bong Joon-ho Talks Cinematic Craft and Tackling Class Divisions in Riveting ‘Parasite’

Bong Joon-ho again proves he is one of modern cinema’s most unique voices with “Parasite.” The impression he gives upon entering a room is of a rather friendly, chatty intellectual or film buff. Yet his films, which cross multiple genres, are dynamic and uncompromising. “Parasite” combines dark humor, social commentary and domestic thriller elements to explore the vicious class divisions in South Korea. Like few recent films it not only captures social relations in its country of origin, but anywhere in the world. 

“Parasite” kicks things off with Ki-woo Kim (Choi Woo-sik), a college-aged guy who needs money and lives in an essential ghetto with parents Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam). When a friend travels abroad and offers Ki-woo the chance to make extra cash as a tutor for the daughter of a wealthy couple he accepts. The Park family is indeed very elite, composed of Dong-ki (Lee Sun-kyun) his wife Yeon-kyo (Jon Yeo-jeong) and children Jung (Jung Ji-so) and Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun). But once Ki-woo enters the lavish world of the Parks the entire Kim family slowly begin to infiltrate their home, brushing aside the current domestics in order to replace them. The symbiosis that forms between both families hurtles towards a wild climax that lays bare the gap between rich and poor. 

“Parasite” is Bong’s first film since his 2017 Netflix movie “Okja,” which was preceded by his 2014 English-language dystopian epic, “Snowpiercer.” Both were brilliant sci-fi fantasies about the abuse of science and rebelling against the powers that be. “Parasite” is something more viciously elegant and refined. Still full of Bong’s visual flare, but driven by the characters’ desire to have better things and other characters’ distaste for those of another class. There are no actual parasites in the movie. Instead it is about the way we leech off each other. 

Bong sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss the many inspirations behind “Parasite,” and how one goes about crafting such a unique film.

“The inspiration came from personal experiences,” said Bong. “When I was in college I worked as a tutor, which is very common for Korean college students. “Sometimes I would tutor for very rich families, one time with this particular family I got fired after two months. Usually it’s not easy to see the private spaces of a family home but for this family the boy I tutored gave me a tour of the entire house. It was like he was just showing off his house, but I had the opportunity to see every corner of this rich home. I have a lot of vivid memories. It was like I was spying on the private lives of complete strangers. They had a private sauna on the second floor, you know. That’s why I put the sauna in the movie, it’s very similar. At the time I was quite shocked, like ‘Wow! A sauna in the house! Unbelievable!’ The boy was very proud of it.”

While the film is a razor sharp portrait of opulence in South Korea, Bong is now aware of its universal reach. “At first I was very amazed by the responses because this film was full of Korean details, and the actors, their performances were full of very Korean nuances. At first I kind of worried if international audiences would be able to sympathize with this story, but ever since we screened it at Cannes it seemed people reacted to it very similarly to even the smallest details. Even I didn’t quite understand why.” From Sidney to Toronto, Bong has been struck by the unity in response to the film’s themes. “I think there is no borderline between countries now, we all labor now in the same country which is called capitalism.” 

Like Tarantino, Bong is the kind of director who begins writing a script without a definite map. “When I’m writing the script I’m just busy thinking about the situation and the characters. It almost feels like I’m not writing the story, the story is dragging me along.” With notable films like “The Host” and “Mother,” Bong has built a reputation on tackling various styles ranging from monster movies to domestic dramas. “A lot of people write about how I shift genres, but to be honest when I’m writing or shooting it’s not something I’m very aware of or intend. I think if someone forced me to maintain a singular tone that would be more difficult for me. This mixture and shifts feels more natural.”

“Parasite” utilizes practical effects in a way different from recent, action-packed Bong opuses. The main setting is the Park family’s opulent home and the gritty home of the Kim family which later floods in a major storm sequence. “We built a huge water tank for special effects, the whole neighborhood was built on it. The water in the scenes looks very dirty, but it’s actually very clean, we used facial mud packs to give it that look. It was very good for the actors, very good for the skin,” said Bong with a sly grin. “We simulated everything, including how high the water comes in every sequence. We prepared so much.” Bong is also meticulous in his shooting structure, carefully storyboarding every scene and following that plan. “I basically storyboard an entire film. I don’t shoot coverage. I shoot what I planned in the storyboard stage and the shots that were already planned.”

Bong began the project with the roles of Ki-woo and Ki-taek already in mind before searching for the rest of his cast. “They already had the perfect faces and expressions. But in terms of the poor daughter, Ki-jung, I realized she already looked like the actor playing Ki-woo, they looked like actual siblings so I reached out to her when I was almost finished with the script. So I began the film with their faces side by side.” The role of the elite Yeon-kyo is filled by Jo Yeo-jeong, who is not known in South Korea for this kind of role. “She’s usually known to play very beautiful and sexy characters, so there was surprise to her casting and this really showed a different side of her.”

Actor Song Kang-ho also changes from his usual roles when doing a Bong film, he has appeared in some of the filmmakers’ most notable works including “The Host” and “Snowpiercer.” “In other Korean films Song Kang-ho has played the charismatic heroes, but in my films for some reason he’s always the idiot loser. The layers and the charm of this actor really suit the narratives that I create.”

But would Bong be lured by the monetary promises of becoming a big-time Hollywood blockbuster director? “When ‘The Host’ was scanned in Cannes in 2006 a lot of U.S. agencies contacted me. My agent changed after ‘Snowpiercer,’ but my previous agent who was an amazing guy brought me a lot of offers to direct big franchises and blockbuster films. Personally I have a lot of fears. Until now I’ve been very lucky because I’ve managed to keep ‘director’s cut’ with the final version of the film. I’ve never had a theatrical version and then a director’s cut. But I hear the bigger the budget becomes the less creative control you have and that’s something I always fear. I wouldn’t ever be able to work like that.” 

Bong cannot be boxed in as just a socially conscious director. He sees the themes of his work as natural outgrowths of being an artist culling material from life and any other inspiration. “I don’t create films to make the world a better place. I’m a filmmaker who pursues the beauty of cinema, but of course as a result if a film can have a good impact on the world that would be great. In our daily lives we chat with our friends and how our love life is going, and of course we talk about Trump and the mortgage crisis. I think our daily lives are very mixed with politics in general, so I always focus on the daily lives of individuals, and already there in the political commentary is seeped into those elements. It would be difficult to separate the two.”

Parasite” opens Oct. 11 in select theaters.