From the moment of Parasite’s world premiere in Cannes, in which a usually stoic European audience hooted and hollered at Bong Joon-ho’s movie’s twists and turns as though it was a midnight screening in Austin, the film’s trajectory has been breakneck. It would go on to win the Palme d’Or, before traveling to festivals the world over and being greeted by audiences with as much fervor as those first screenings. Now, director Bong is nominated for Best Director at the Globes, and Parasite looks set to break out of the international feature race and into Oscar’s main competition.
DEADLINE: Is it true that Parasite began as a play?
BONG JOON-HO: It is true that I first conceived of this idea as theater, but from the very beginning, it didn’t work out that way. From the first line, I was already thinking about the camera positions. I just realized that I had to do this as a film, as always.
DEADLINE: Where did you get the idea?
BONG: Actually, in the case of The Host, one of my previous movies, I had a very clear beginning point. But in this case, it’s much harder to describe how and when it came to be. It was something like a parasite; it was already inside. I just kind of discovered it. Normally, we don’t know when and how a parasite comes into us, so it was a quite similar thing.
In 2013, during the post-production of Snowpiercer, I have a very clear, early memory of describing this story to someone else. A story about two families—one rich, one poor—where the poor family infiltrates the rich house, at the very beginning.
DEADLINE: Frequently in your films, you plant thematic material to explore within allegory, or within a certain genre. What comes first, the theme or the genre?
BONG: I never really define the genre that I want the story to be in, or what metaphors or symbols I should place within the story. I always just want to depict very interesting and entertaining situations. I move through impulses.
Actually, in the movie, when the young son gets that strange, colored stone, he himself says, “Wow, this is very metaphorical.” [laughs] Usually, it’s the film critics who say, “Wow, that was so metaphorical,” but you have the actor up there, announcing it himself. So, it’s very strange. That stone becomes something very important in the film, and I tend to not like symbols. I wanted this film to feel more physical.
DEADLINE: It’s true, though, that the film explores deep themes like socioeconomic inequality. Is striking this kind of balance between meaning and entertainment important for you?
BONG: For me, instinctively, humor and fun are like the air I breathe. Whenever I work, there’s always humor, and alongside that comes drama. I always try to maintain those elements, but I always want to hide some very sharp blade inside the social message, or something political. Something very crucial and sharp is inside there, to spark the audience’s thought.
DEADLINE: From your perspective, is the message of Parasite for Korea, or something more global?
BONG: Very global, very universal. It’s almost everywhere, in any country. On the surface, there’s so many funny, very Korean details; so many Korean nuances. But it’s very strongly, firmly based on a universal subject and theme.
DEADLINE: How did the Kims and the Parks come together in your mind?
BONG: It was like laying bricks, one-by-one. So, the Kim family is unemployed. They’re completely capable and smart, but they just don’t have jobs, and that’s the sad part. They’re poor, but at the same time, they’re very intimate. They like to spend time with one another. And then the rich family, the Parks, was mirrored off of the poor family—four family members, one to one, daughter and son. But they’re rarely together.
DEADLINE: The rich house feels like an island; isolated above all the poorer structures below.
BONG: The rich house is a very important element in the film, and I really discussed it a lot with the production designer, Ha-jun Lee. Of course, the house has a lot of secrets. When we see it for the first time, it has to feel extravagant and beautiful, but it also has to feel like it doesn’t carry any secrets, so that it’s surprising.
DEADLINE: Dark, gothic, classical houses often major roles in horror movies. By contrast, the rich house in Parasite is bright and modern. Were you deliberately subverting what we expect?
BONG: Yeah, that is what I intended. Of course, the house is the work of a very famous architect, and it features in a very elegant way in the film. You first begin with bright sunlight, and then you delve deeper into the darkness of the house, like you’re going inside a cave. The horror element really comes into the picture in the latter half of the film. At first, it just looks like a really beautiful estate.
Because 90% of the film happens in the rich house, with the poor house below, ever since I started writing the script, I did a lot of sketches of the basic structures. So, when I finished the script and handed it to the production designer, I also handed him my sketches, and told him that these structures were necessary for the blocking.
But the production designer had to consult an actual architect to design this house, and when the architect saw my sketches, he was like, “No idiot would build houses this way. This is ridiculous.” So, the production designer came back to me and I kept saying, “I need this structure! I need this blocking line.”
But the production designer was incredible. He suffered, in between me and the architect. But in the end, he managed to get approval from the architect, while giving me everything that I wanted and required. The house came out amazing.
DEADLINE: What was it like to share Parasite for the first time at its Cannes premiere?
BONG: I was very shocked at Cannes. They applauded in the middle of the movie, two times. It was very strange. Then, after that in places like Sydney and Hanoi and Toronto, the same thing happened, again and again. At the end of that one sequence, when Song [Kang-ho] brings out the bloody tissue paper, people started clapping. It was a very strange feeling; it felt like a live concert.
DEADLINE: You’d had strange experiences in Cannes before. When you premiered Okja there in 2017, the film got caught up in the controversy surrounding Netflix’s first time on the Croisette.
BONG: Yeah, exactly. It was very hard to talk about the movie itself. People were always talking about the streaming thing, the tension between the French theater industry and streaming services. It’s very much better to be talking about the film this time around.
Okja was my first time in competition, so that’s something. But because the controversy was so severe, it was an exhausting experience. In Toronto this year, I met director Noah Baumbach. At Cannes in 2017, his movie The Meyerowitz Stories was the other Netflix movie in competition, so we shared the same situation. He’s made another movie with Netflix this year, of course. I asked him, “How’s this year?” He said he was having a great time and it’s getting better and better. Netflix is now more flexible, so Marriage Story is showing for longer in theaters, exclusively, before streaming. I think at the time, 2017, the feeling was it was too early.
I really want to work with Netflix again, if I have a chance. It was a great experience. They gave me 100%, total creative control to release my director’s cut, which is quite rare in this industry.
DEADLINE: I had wondered if the Netflix/Cannes debate, on top of your experiences with Harvey Weinstein on Snowpiercer, would put you off of the idea of working in America again.
BONG: I consider Netflix great friends, and working on Snowpiercer and Okja has given me the opportunity to work and communicate with a lot of filmmakers and actors from Europe and the U.S. So now, I have a wider range of collaborators with whom I can work, and I will continue making Korean films like Parasite, also. But actually, I’m just very dependent on the story, what kind of story I’m going to make. That’s the basic thing, not where I’ll make it. It’s not like, “Oh, one film, I’ll do in the U.S., and one film, I’ll do in Korea.”
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