South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho has been a familiar sight in Cannes since 2006, when word of his delirious Han River monster romp The Host swept the Croisette after screening in Directors’ Fortnight. Since then, while his English and dress sense quietly improved, director Bong has always returned with a surprise, making the transition to Official Selection with UCR entry Mother and upgrading to Competition with 2017’s English-language Netflix Original Okja. Bong loves to flit from genre to genre, which might explain why he’s keeping quiet about his upcoming Neon release Parasite.
What’s Parasite about?
It’s a unique family drama featuring two Korean families, one rich and one poor. It’s difficult to define as a genre. It could be a crime drama. It could be a family drama. It could be a black comedy. It’s a mix of a variety of genres.
What was the first inspiration?
The inspiration came with the question of, what would happen if the two families—the rich family and the poor family, who occupy very different spaces in the city—would meet? What would happen if those two worlds were to collide? That was the beginning of the film. And the two families intersect when the son of the poor family becomes the tutor for the rich family.
Why do you have such an interest in families? It’s a recurring theme in all your films…
I’m not necessarily obsessed with the theme of family, but this film is unlike my previous films, where the families were incomplete—in Mother there was no father, and in The Host there was a family with no mother. So I deal mostly with incomplete families, and how a family with missing members finds balance.
But this film, Parasite, features a conventional family with four family members, and I’m more focused on how these two conventional families would meet and what kind of drama would emerge when they met.
Is it true that you come from a very creative family?
I do come from a creative family. My father, who passed away two years ago, was a designer, and my older brother is a literary critic. My son has also started making films. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a novelist, but after the Korean War the family was divided, so I didn’t get to meet him.
Were you always going to be a filmmaker? Could you have just as easily been a novelist?
I’d wanted to become a filmmaker ever since I was in middle school, when I was around 14 years old. But I think of myself as a novelist or writer when I write my own scripts, which I’ve been doing all along. I draw my storyboards myself as well, and when I work on the storyboard I consider myself a cartoonist. In my next life I want to be a cartoonist, because I love Manga.
What was the first film that had an impact on you?
When I was nine years old, in elementary school, I watched a French film with the English title Wages of Fear. I have a very shaky memory of that film.
Did that film make you want to become a filmmaker?
It was one of my inspirations to become a filmmaker. I also remember watching a lot of 1970s American cinema that inspired me. There are a lot of films that inspired me [laughs]. I remember being very excited about the films of the 1970s—American Hollywood films, by directors like Steven Spielberg, John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and John Schlesinger.
When did you realize that film could be an art form?
Since the very beginning I had the idea of cinema being art—the ultimate and the best art [laughs]. There [was] no other art beside cinema!
When you made your first film Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), what did you want to achieve?
When I was making it I didn’t really have anything specific in mind, I was just very busy trying to finish the film in very difficult circumstances. So I was more concerned with finishing the film than achieving a specific artistic agenda. But reflecting back on it, it’s probably the most personal film I’ve made.
Your second film, Memories of Murder is much, much better. How did you become such a good filmmaker in the space of three years?
I don’t know [Laughs]. No drugs were involved!
I think I was just much more comfortable making the second film. My first feature wasn’t a success. But I’d been given a second chance, so I was more confident in myself. Also, my second film wasn’t a personal story. It dealt with the social issues surrounding a series of serial murders that actually took place in the 1980s.
Did they ever find the killer?
The film came out in 2003, by which time the statute of limitations was over. But the film was a box-office hit, so it brought out a call for reinvestigation of the case. More people became aware of what happened in 1980, so the success of the film brought the issue back to the surface. But the mystery is still unsolved. The case is still unsettled. My crew and I used to talk about it—how the murderer himself could have gone to the theater and seen the film.
Your next film, The Host, was invited to Cannes. How did that change your life?
After The Host was screened at the Cannes and Toronto Film Festival I got an American agent and I received many offers from Korea, America and even China, mostly to make sequels or remakes of The Host. But I was determined that I didn’t want to repeat myself; I didn’t want to make another monster film. Around that time I was offered a zombie movie, which turned out to be World War Z. There were some other monster films, but I can’t really remember their names.
Mother was a big change from The Host. What inspired it?
The starting point was actually the actress, Kim Hye-ja, who plays the mother in the film. She is a legendary actress in Korea. She’s an iconic figure who represents the ultimate mother figure in Korea—the good, devotional, warm mother. I really wanted to subvert the idea of what it means to be a good mother. But I’m very interested in crime stories—detective mystery stories. So, although it may seem like a big change from The Host to Mother, the crime story is a recurring through line in my work.
Then you turned to sci-fi with Snowpiercer. How did that come about?
I found the original graphic novel of Snowpiercer in 2005 at a bookstore that I go to. And what struck me was the actual concept of the Snowpiercer—the concept of the survival of humanity in a running train with different sections representing different social statuses. I really wanted to make the film, but I had to go through a lot of trouble to make it into a reality.
What was the biggest problem?
Harvey Weinstein [Laughs]. I completed the film to budget and right on schedule. So completing the film was OK, and it was a hit in Korea, but we were distributing the film in America through The Weinstein Company. I’ve always worked with my own director’s cut, and Harvey is very notorious for editing his films. So there was some conflict between the distribution company and myself. But anyway—finally—I protected my own director’s cut. The movie that was released in the U.S. was my own final cut. It was a very limited release, and maybe that was some kind of punishment, but I didn’t care.
Your last film, Okja, was made for Netflix, which caused a major controversy at the festival. How do you feel about that now?
Well, I think that there should be a drive for coexistence between film theaters and Netflix, but as a film director, as a creator, my job is to make films, not to worry about this controversy.
But I was satisfied with the audience reaction, not just from people in Korea but in different countries and from all international audiences. Especially vegans and vegetarians. They really loved the movie.