When writer-director Bong Joon-ho was in college, he tutored for a wealthy family to make money. The South Korean grew up in a middle-class family – his father was a graphic designer – but when he walked in the lavish house of his new employers, he was overtaken by an “eerie and unfamiliar” feeling. “They had a sauna on their second floor,” he chuckles. “At the time it was quite shocking to me. A sauna in the house – very strange!”
It was this experience that planted the seed for his latest – and greatest film – Parasite. A dazzling social satire about the rich-poor divide, one that the 49 year-old filmmaker calls “a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains”, it stars Song Kang Ho – a Bong regular in films like Memories of Murder, The Host and Snowpiercer – as the father of a family that cons their way into domestic positions in the household of a wealthy CEO (Lee Sun Kyun).
Last month, at the Cannes Film Festival, Parasite was the unanimous jury choice for the Palme d’Or, with Bong becoming the first Korean director ever to take home the prestigious prize (closer to home, it took the Sydney Film Festival’s top gong last week). After posting huge numbers in Korea when it opened in late May, it’s now on track to become the most lucrative Cannes-winner since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (which grossed US$222 million worldwide).
Bong first began working on the idea for Parasite in 2013, during the post-production for his post-apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer and before he even started scripting his 2017 Netflix-backed Okja. “Snowpiercer was about class struggle and class difference…and in that film it talks about the struggle between the front cars and the tail cars [of a futuristic train]. The story unfolds using sci-fi and action, so I think I wanted to talk about the gap between rich and poor – a similar theme – in a more realistic way, and on a smaller scale.”
Originally the film was called ‘The Décalcomanie’ – a reference to the artistic concept of ‘decalcomania’ or ‘decal’, where an image is created and can be transferred, or reflected, onto another surface. “The way I was approaching these two families and their relationship was [that] they were on an equal plane – they were more of an equal stance in the story,” notes Bong, “but the story changed to focus more on this poor family and the narrative followed their point of view.”
The story begins as Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) gets a job as a tutor at the Park residence, before his father, mother and sister worm their way into other jobs there, though Bong is reluctant to specify exactly who the ‘parasites’ in the story are. “In the story, they are con-men and they do bad things, but they’re not really the true villains in this story.” Rather, Bong creates a portrait of contemporary society – a “horrible system” as he puts it – where the poor family are forced to become parasites.
“The poor characters in this film are actually quite smart and capable,” he adds. “You think that with those skills and abilities they would do pretty well if they had a job, but the issue is there is not enough employment for them. And I think that’s the economic situation that we face in Korea and also across the world. If we had a proper system set up, they would do perfectly fine, but they’re pushed and driven to get involved in these dangerous situations.”
Among the films Bong revisited when the film went into pre-production: Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), which starred Dirk Bogarde as a man who begins to control the life of his employer; Claude Chabrol’s This Man Must Die (1969); and Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), the story of a composer and his wife who get more than they bargained for from their new maid servant. “Kim Ki-young is my mentor and I repeatedly watch his films,” notes Bong. “This film is also incredibly influenced by him.”
He calls Parasite an example of “staircase cinema” – a particular influence from The Housemaid, where stairs are central to the plot and themes of the film. In Bong’s film, much of the action takes place in the Park household, in the family’s beautiful modernist home. The way the house is designed, and the way the characters move around it, becomes fundamental to Parasite’s second half. “Because the first hour spends time building up the setting and the characters for the audience,” says Bong, “in the last hour we can really just explode in an unexpected way.”
Bong worked out the elaborate blocking – the way the actors physically interact in each scene – long before he got on set. “I already had a basic structure of the house when I finished the script,” he explains. But it made designing the house extremely difficult, with Bong insistent that characters shouldn’t be able to see each other during key moments. “This idea of visibility and non-visibility within the house was very important. So, the production designer took my sketch to an actual architect for advice, and they said ‘No one builds houses like this, architecturally! This is ridiculous!’”
It’s why the Parasite team chose to shoot the film on a series of sets, rather than find a real house that suited Bong’s architecturally unusual requirements. “I get more excited when I have these limitations – very enclosed, almost claustrophobic spaces,” he adds. “What was challenging for this film was that ninety percent of the story was told in the two houses – the rich house and the poor house. But that allowed me to look at the space through a microscope, and really make fine slices of these spaces and I took great joy in that.”
What results is a film that deftly blends social commentary with black comedy and even violent farce. “When you see events unfold, when you don’t expect it at all, you feel very flustered and I enjoy that sense of being very flustered,” the director smiles. “I’m a little hesitant to say this – because I don’t want to seem too much of a pervert! – but when the audience is laughing at these scenes, at the same time they doubt their own laughter. They almost feel apologetic that they’re laughing about these scenes.”
Talking of inappropriate jokes, the film has been accused of making jibes towards nearby North Korea, something Bong plays down. In reality, relations between the nations are not that frosty, he says. “Some of my friends in the US will say ‘Are you going to continue living in Korea? Are you OK?’ But mostly to Koreans, we don’t really think about it. Of course, we are afraid of war and we do worry about it, but we just go on with our daily lives. Because ultimately there is nothing we can do.”
In the meantime, Bong can bask in the glory of Parasite, something of a fillip after Okja was caught in the controversy surrounding Netflix and theatrical distribution when it played in Cannes two years ago. Bong says he has “no regrets” over making Okja, but there was something pleasurable about directing the more intimate Parasite – his first Korean-language movie in a decade. “I felt like I was able to pay attention to more details – that was what was great about this experience,” he says. “I’m looking to pursue films more of this size in the future.”
Parasite is in cinemas June 27, 2019
Main Photo: © Déborah Néris / FDC