Can a non-English language film win Best Picture on the American industry’s grandest night of the year? It is a question Oscar prognosticators have been chewing over for months, with increasing intensity, as Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite has been making history at every turn.
Parasite’s life began at the Cannes Film Festival in May where, a few days after its world premiere, the movie became the first from South Korea to be awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or. The recognition came only a couple of years after Bong courted controversy in the French press for bringing Okja, a Netflix production, to the festival. Okja’s premiere sparked a debate about streaming’s role in cinema that continues to this day.
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Reflecting now, director Bong considers the Cannes debut for Parasite, where the crowd reaction was decidedly more vocal than the austerity usually expected of a highly reverent Côte d’Azur audience, to be a watershed moment in his realization that the film was having a unique impact.
But the record-setting for Parasite never stopped. Earlier this month, it became the first film from South Korea nominated for Oscar’s Best International Feature Film prize (the category was, until this year, known as ‘Best Foreign Language Film’), one season after Lee Chang-dong’s Burning was the first to make the shortlist. This, perhaps, is the most surprising statistic considering the healthy film industry of South Korea, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2019. Filmmakers like Park Chan-wook, Hong Sang-soo and Im Kwon-taek, to name a few, have been contributing to a golden age of Korean cinema that has run for decades now.
Perhaps there’s something to the Academy’s rebranding of this category that suggests barriers like language are breaking down in an increasingly globalized filmmaking world. Parasite is also the first Korean movie nominated for Best Picture, and only the sixth film not in English to take nominations in both categories. While no foreign language movie has ever pulled off a Best Picture win, it was only last year that Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma spent its season as a key frontrunner for the prize, with Cuarón ultimately claiming Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film. Among Parasite’s six-strong haul of Oscar nominations, Bong is also nominated for Best Director and, along with co-writer Han Jin Won, Best Original Screenplay.
On the day of this year’s nominations, Bong told me he felt like he was living inside Inception. “Soon I’m going to wake up and realize this was all a dream, I’m still in the middle of Parasite and all the equipment is malfunctioning. I see the catering truck on fire and I’m wailing.”
We meet again for the movie’s AwardsLine cover shoot on the occasion of the SAG Awards, alongside his most frequent collaborator in Parasite’s cast, Song Kang Ho. It is mere hours before his cast will set records again as the first ensemble of a non-English language movie to win SAG’s top prize, bringing the dream just that little bit closer. And while the film’s astonishing players missed out on individual recognition from the Motion Picture Academy—perpetuating a dispiriting tradition for Asian-fronted, Oscar-friendly movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Slumdog Millionaire—it seems fair to say that, no matter what happens on February 9th, Parasite’s place in motion picture history is assured.
I begin by sounding off Parasite’s extraordinary achievements, and ask the question I am sure Bong and Song have been chewing over for a while…
DEADLINE: There is something decidedly different about the trajectory of this movie, making history for Korean cinema. What has changed?
BONG JOON HO: I never planned this. When I was preparing this movie, there was no plan. I just wanted to make my seventh feature film. When I shot the film, I shot it as I’ve always done, just hoping it would then lead to my eighth, ninth and tenth features. But then we went to Cannes and we won the Palme d’Or, and that’s when we found out that it was also the centennial of Korean cinema. When that happened, the U.S. distributor, NEON, said, “Parasite is going to be summoned to awards season regardless of whether you want it or not.” We were sort of forced to begin this whole journey [laughs]. It really wasn’t something we were anticipating at all. To be honest, I never plan; I never expect it. It just sort of happened. But it’s not a bad thing, I suppose.
You can say that this is the exception for Korean cinema, or on the other hand, you can say that the Korean industry has been gradually preparing for this moment by maintaining a very robust industry, so the moment that was meant to come has finally come with Parasite, and maybe this can happen again for Korean cinema.
DEADLINE: It isn’t so long ago that the government of South Korea held a blacklist that had your name on it, Bong, along with some 10,000 names of filmmakers deemed to be critical of the administration, and those people were prevented from receiving arts funding. In 2018, the new administration issued a public apology for the existence of that blacklist. Are things better now?
SONG KANG HO: Now, and as it was the case in the past, filmmakers never really thought much about these blacklists. Filmmakers have always done their best to push and create their passions and their works. I don’t think it was a big influence on Korean artists.
BONG: Director Park Chan-wook and I were on that blacklist, but actually, we weren’t significantly influenced by being on the list. The filmmakers that were most affected were the ones that need government funding, like documentary and indie film artists that were excluded by the list. Director Park and I, we always work with private companies like CJ Entertainment, so we weren’t affected directly. But just the fact that this blacklist existed in the first place is quite pathetic, and something that you would normally see from a military government.
DEADLINE: Parasite’s ride made me wonder if maybe you had a mystical scholars’ stone at home bringing you luck, like in the movie. “It’s so metaphorical!”
BONG: [Laughs] Actually, when I was young, my father, who passed away a couple of years ago, he used to collect these scholars’ stones. There were a lot of families like that. So, I grew up surrounded by these scholars’ stones, and there were a lot of times where he asked me to go to the river with him in search of these stones. My mother used to hate those stones, because they were heavy and hard to clean. So, when we’d move, my mother would secretly throw them all away. But I think she still has one in her home. There are certainly none in mine!
We first screened the film at Cannes, and the audience was comprised of people from many countries. And even though it was a competition screening in Cannes, it felt more like it was a Midnight Madness screening at Toronto. People were clapping in the middle and laughing out loud. It was quite a different, very heated response that we saw, and that’s when it first felt that something was different. It wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated. Regardless of whether or not it would win awards, I was very happy to see it receive such an enthusiastic response. And then we kept screening it. In Sydney, and Munich, and Toronto. And the reactions were all quite similar. That enthusiasm that we saw.
SONG: I was very surprised, because over the past 13 years, this was my third film in competition at Cannes. With the other films, the viewing experience was very serious, and the atmosphere was almost suffocating. Just to see people’s euphoric responses was just crazy. For a moment, it was so flustering that I didn’t know if it meant the film was really good or really, really bad [laughs]. Of course, ultimately, I knew there was something great waiting for us, just to see the energy in the room.
Director Bong usually tells me about his projects a couple years prior. But this time when he handed me the script, he also handed me another piece of paper. It was an NDA that I had to sign. It said that if I leaked anything, he would sue me, so I had to sign it to receive the script.
BONG: We never sue each other [laughs]. It never happens.
DEADLINE: Did you wonder if the themes would translate outside of Korea?
BONG: There have been many films and TV shows about rich and poor. I don’t think that, just because a story has a universal theme, it’s instantly accessible to everyone around the world. But if you think about the mundane humor of this film, I think that a lot of people just immediately grasped it. Things like the Jessica jingle; the melody Kim Ki-jung [Park So Dam] uses to memorize something. I remember at Cannes, a lot of people from different countries told me they all have melodies like that, that they used at school to memorize things about history or math. These were things that people were very easily able to understand through context.
Even in the opening scenes, you have these kids searching for Wi-Fi and they can’t guess the password. These are very mundane, very small Korean details, but I think that it’s accessible, because if you live in a metropolitan area, everyone’s life takes on the same form. I think there aren’t that many differences in terms of how people lead their lives.
SONG: When I read the script for the first time, I was so fascinated by the story. And then I reflected on director Bong’s career over the past 20 years, and the path he’s led as an artist. I remembered the excitement I felt when I first read Memories of Murder, and just how alive that story was. Those memories, they all came back when I read Parasite.
I think the character of Ki-taek is within us all. We all want to try our best to live the best life we can, but our environments don’t necessarily let us do so. In the process, we might go through a lot of sadness and joy, suffering and happiness, and there’s always comedy and tragedy mixed in, as well. So, for me, it was really very natural to perform this character.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Memories of Murder, which came out in 2003 and was based on a real, unsolved serial murder case in Korea that happened between 1986 and 1991. To add to the full circle effect of this year with Parasite, the perpetrator of those murders finally confessed this year. How did that feel?
BONG: His name is Lee. Lee Choon-jae. Those serial killings were a big trauma for our generation. I had no idea it would take so long for him to be caught. I would like to visit him and meet him, but I don’t think he would allow something like that. 17 years ago, I spent a year or two just completely being obsessed with him while I was writing and making Memories of Murder, and I’m sure Song was just as obsessed with him while shooting the film.
When you look at the picture of him, you ask yourself, does he look normal? Does he look like an ordinary guy? Maybe you remember the very last line of dialogue in the movie. A little girl meets Song, and she had witnessed the killer. He asks the girl what the killer looks like and she says, “Just ordinary.” But I don’t think the real killer has an ordinary face. That somehow comforted me. I think I’d have felt worse if he had a normal, nice face. Maybe I think he looks like a killer because I know now that he is one. But I think he does look a little off.
DEADLINE: Perhaps you can only say that after the fact. I can think of some recent examples of very high-profile people who have now been exposed for wrongdoing, and who were hiding in plain sight. Perhaps we should have suspected from looking at them that they were capable of real darkness, and yet we didn’t.
BONG: I often imagined Lee Choon-jae’s face while we were making the movie, and there are police sketches of his face as well. But I think we all have this desire to check the face of criminals and evil people. We are comforted by knowing their faces, so we can be aware, and protect ourselves. Not knowing the faces of these people caused a lot of anxiety and pain, and people went through that pain for decades.
DEADLINE: Has it crossed your mind that he’s probably seen the movie? What do you think he would have made of it?
SONG: It’s very difficult to imagine how he received the film.
BONG: A couple of his cellmates said that when the film aired on TV, he watched it around three times. Who knows if it’s true or not—criminals tend to lie—but they did say that he’d watched it.
To be honest, even while we were making the movie, it was hard for us all not to imagine that when it was released in theaters, it was possible the real murderer would come and watch it. Imagining him coming to the theater made me feel very complicated. Not so good.
DEADLINE: That was your first movie together. You subsequently made The Host and Snowpiercer with one another, in addition to Parasite. What keeps you coming back to one another?
SONG: When I look back at the past 20 years, and consider the films we’ve made together, they’re not just the best films either of us have made; they’re also some of the best films in Korean cinema. The most meaningful works that Korean cinema has produced; and works that have become the canon of the industry.
I feel like I’ve worked with director Bong alongside the evolution he’s shown as a filmmaker and as an artist. When I look back on the projects, they’ve always made me curious, they’ve always made me excited. And this excitement is always very mysterious. There’s a lot of mystery behind, like, what stories will he tell next? What kind of movie will he come up with? There’s an excitement and anticipation that comes from knowing he will always introduce me to a new world every time. That’s the kind of partnership we’ve had.
BONG: When I think about my creative process, I’m not a very realistic person. I’m more the type to come up with a lot of strange thoughts by myself. All these absurd and eerie ideas that I have; I have a very strange sensibility as an artist. But Song is an icon of Korean cinema. He really represents the Korean everyman. And so, when my strange ideas meet him, they become more realistic. It’s like he helps those ideas lay roots in the real world.
When I work knowing that he will play these roles, it makes me bolder. I know I can latch on to those really strange ideas. With Parasite, there’s a very realistic atmosphere that only the actors created. If you exclude all these performances and only think about the words on the page, it’s a very strange story. It’s the actors that pull off the trick of convincing the audience that this is something that can happen in our everyday lives. Something that can happen in our neighborhoods. That’s something you have to credit to these actors, and at the crux of all that is Song.
DEADLINE: You’ve also been able to join the promotion for the movie, which is unusual for a foreign language picture released in the U.S. Usually it’s a lonely tour for the director.
SONG: Yeah, and it has given me nosebleeds.
BONG: [Laughs]. He means really. Physically. In Telluride, in the altitude.
SONG: But now I’m bleeding from every orifice [laughs].
BONG: It’s not just us, it’s all the filmmakers [in this race]. Noah [Baumbach] has dark circles under his eyes [laughs]. Tilda Swinton won the Oscar for Michael Clayton in 2007. She was in Okja and Snowpiercer, so I asked her what to expect. She said it wasn’t this intense back then.
SONG: It is physically demanding because for all of us—not just director Bong—it’s our first time going through an awards campaign. But because we’ve never done it before, everything’s very fresh and a big surprise. Seeing how passionate everyone is has really motivated me as a filmmaker. It feels like we’re all in this together. We see them every day and they’ve started to feel like family.
BONG: When will we ever again get to see Robert De Niro and Al Pacino three times a week in our lives [laughs]? With Taika Waititi as well, we’ve been seeing him every day, so at this point he feels like a friend. It’s a very happy journey we’re on.
DEADLINE: This is a big moment for Korea, but following so closely on the heels of Roma being a frontrunner last season, do you think it shows an increased appetite for foreign language cinema in the U.S.? At the Globes, Bong, you said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
BONG: That speech I gave at the Golden Globes was something I came up with on the spot as I was walking up to the stage. It’s not something that I had prepared in advance. And I almost feel like my speech was a little late. I didn’t have to mention this barrier of subtitles because this barrier is already being destroyed, thanks to YouTube and Netflix and the other streaming services. And of course, with social media. It feels as though the borders and barriers we put up between nations and continents are not as significant as they once were. We live in a time where individuals follow other individuals. And I think because of the internet and this new environment, things have been changing in so many ways. My speech was a little late in all that.
DEADLINE: Coming to America to make an English-language picture was once seen as a prize for a foreign director. You made your first American movie with Snowpiercer and came up against one of those people hiding in plain sight that we were talking about earlier. Harvey Weinstein fought tooth and nail with you on that movie. When you made Okja and it premiered in Cannes, all the press was about the fact that it was a Netflix movie in the Cannes selection. Did it make you wonder whether making English-language movies was such a great prize?
BONG: I think the answer is in your question. When I did Snowpiercer and Okja, which are both about 80% in English, they were not received as well as Parasite has been received. That makes me realize that what’s truly important is the story and the film itself. Of course, I don’t mean to take anything away from my previous work, but it’s something I did notice with Parasite.
SONG: As an actor—and I think it’s the same for all other artists and filmmakers—I don’t think anyone should really makes films for the sake of success. I don’t think that’s what’s truly important. People assume everyone wants to succeed as a great Hollywood star, but I don’t think any actor really performs with that goal. Of course, it feels great to feel loved and receive attention globally, but that should never be the goal. That’s not how life works, and it’s not how art works. What’s important is not to create something or perform a role with a certain goal in mind, but to find your own value in the work itself, and in the process itself. Naturally, success will follow if you really focus on the values that you find in the process. I think the key example of that is Parasite.
BONG: Sometimes in the Korean industry, people will talk about creating movies that target a particular market, whether that’s the North American market or the Chinese market or whatever it is. But I think that in itself is a little absurd, because a film is not like a shoe or a car. As a filmmaker, I don’t think there should be anything between me and my story. I should face the story transparently. And for the actors, there should be nothing between the actors and the characters they’re trying to create. They should delve themselves into these characters transparently. That’s the only way to handle cinema. Movies are not shoes [laughs].
SONG: You mentioned Harvey Weinstein… Director Bong isn’t the type to really talk about his struggles, or the internal conflicts that he goes through; he tends to just deal with it all on his own. I only heard bits and pieces of what he went through on Snowpiercer, because he never shared the full details. I never got the full story on that.
BONG: At the time I wasn’t aware of his reputation at all because I’d exclusively worked within the Korean industry up until then. I did know that his nickname was Harvey Scissorhands, so there was a lot of fear in that. I had to figure out how to avoid that kind of crisis, because previously all my works had been released in director’s cut form. I went into Snowpiercer already very afraid I wasn’t going to get that.
It was a huge struggle to maneuver through that situation. Thankfully, I had the support of my financiers at CJ, and we were able to move through it. We did get kind of a happy ending when the film was handed off to RADiUS-TWC. It was a limited release, but at least I was able to keep my director’s cut. And, of course, the person who handled that entire process was Tom Quinn, the co-founder of NEON. So that experience on Snowpiercer led very directly to this great partnership that I have now, in the journey of Parasite.
DEADLINE: You are embarking on another American adventure with the announcement of a Parasite series for HBO, being produced with Adam McKay. It’s early days, I know, but you told me that you’d be exploring the unturned scholar stones of these particular characters and it made me wonder whether this new attitude to foreign language cinema might make it possible that you’d keep the show in Korean rather than turn it into something English-language.
BONG: Before language, I just hope that this becomes an opportunity that can powerfully prove the universality of this story, and the themes of this story. That, whether it’s set in the U.S. or the U.K., this story can be applied to the rich and poor in all countries.
The Parasite series idea was something I actually suggested myself. It wasn’t an offer that came to me, for a remake or anything like that. I told the producers at CJ from the very beginning that I would eventually like to make a limited series, because when I was writing the script, I had so many hidden stories in my iPad. Accumulated ideas that I couldn’t convey in a two-hour film.
I’m not even thinking about this as a TV show. I don’t watch a lot of TV. For me, it’s a high quality five- or six-hour film; an expanded version of the Parasite we have now. That’s the direction I want to take, and that’s what has led to the partnership with Adam McKay and HBO. They’ve proved themselves with Succession—although I haven’t watched it yet—and so that’s a team that I already trust. I’m excited to start that process.
DEADLINE: What were some of those stories?
BONG: Well, for example, you remember the moment—and this is a spoiler—where the original housekeeper comes back in the rainy night, and her face is full of cuts and bruises? The movie never fully explains that, but I have two or three stories already about that in my mind. Also, there’s a very strange relationship in the film between the original architect of the house and that housekeeper. Why did the architect only tell the housekeeper about the bunker in the basement? Maybe something happened between them. I have so many ideas like those, as an example. I really wanted to expand the story, in a deeper and more meaningful way, and I think for people that have already watched the movie, they will be surprised by the many revelations there are still to come, that are buried within the detail of the movie. So, look forward to it [laughs].
DEADLINE: Song, did director Bong share any of those backstories with you when you were creating Kim Ki-taek? Would you hope to reprise the role in the show?
SONG: We did have a couple of conversations while sharing a drink, but he didn’t go into any detail and lay out the entire story or anything like that.
It’s an incredibly charming role, and of course with Parasite we had the physical limitation of a two-hour runtime. The possibility of being able to delve deeper into this character and tell a much wider range of stories of his life, that’s a very exciting possibility and I’m so curious to see what kind of life he’s led.
BONG: When we were filming the scene in the drivers’ restaurant, and he was talking about his previous failed businesses, I was imagining Ki-taek frying chicken or making Taiwanese cupcakes. I really wanted to shoot it, but we’d already made the decision that we weren’t going to shoot any flashbacks or get into any of those kinds of intricate devices. But the desire was there.
DEADLINE: Are there any elements of the movie that you’re surprised people haven’t asked you to expand upon?
SONG: I thought that, with the climax, whether it was with Korean audiences or anybody else, people would find it very chaotic. It was something that I was concerned about when we were shooting. But there was no need for concern; we haven’t really had any questions about that. But then, I was also curious about the climax because not a lot of people have mentioned it [laughs].
BONG: I think people have mostly tried to protect the climax and not spoil it. But thinking about it, even during after-screening Q&As people don’t really talk about the climax…
Actually, a couple of weeks before we filmed the climax, Song and I had a conversation about it. I asked him to grab a meal with me so we could discuss the climax. What you see in the film is much bolder than the descriptions in the script. Spoilers again, but in the script, it’s quite vague whether Ki-Taek intended to kill Mr. Park, or whether it’s just an accident. In the final film, you know that it’s intentional, with the instant rage he feels. And of course, he regrets it later on.
I asked Song how he felt about the bolder moment, and he said that reality is much crueler. It’s raw, and it’s more violent. It was the answer I wanted to hear, and I was encouraged by that. I didn’t hesitate to make those changes, and we actually shot it pretty fast.
DEADLINE: Is the Parasite TV show your next priority? Or are there other features you want to make first?
BONG: There’s a very small chance that I’ll direct an episode of the TV show. We’re currently searching for other directors. My role is more as a producer. I will be involved in the story, but I won’t be on set much, managing things. My priority is always feature films. I’m currently working on two scripts right now, which are in the very early stages. I haven’t been able to work much on them because of the awards campaign. Instead of writing scripts I’m going to all these events.
It started with a quick phone call for Sharon Choi, when Bong Joon Ho was preparing to take Parasite to Cannes and needed a translator for some early interviews—including with Deadline for our Disruptors magazine. The Seoul-based South Korean saw it as a chance to make a little extra income as she pursued her own ambitions. And director Bong immediately sparked to the skill with which Choi spun his turns of phrase into English (he speaks good English but prefers to communicate the nuance of his interviews in his native tongue), turning Choi into a key part of the Parasite ensemble ever since.
Now, more than six months later, Choi has become a star in her own right, especially after Bong became the first non-native speaker featured as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, with Choi taking the couch alongside him to translate. “She has her own fandom now, in Korea and the U.S.,” insists Song Kang Ho, translated—just this once—by Bong himself, who says Choi is “too embarrassed to translate it herself”.
“You already know she’s not a professional translator,” Bong says. But Choi understands more than just English and Korean. With such a huge disparity between the vocabulary and structure of the two languages, it takes someone with a grasp of the language of cinema, also, to be able to effectively telegraph Bong’s answers. “Actually, she’s a filmmaker. Her major was in filmmaking. She will make a film of her own this year,” Bong adds.