Interview: Dissecting the hidden motifs of ‘Parasite’ with director Bong Joon-Ho
The irony that I was about to talk to Bong Joon-Ho about his award-winning film, Parasite, in one of the fanciest neighborhoods in Los Angeles (Beverly Hills, to be exact) was not lost on me. I was surrounded by giant, bodacious houses and lounging around in a green-room filled with delicate artisan pastries, an exquisite buffet and a full-on coffee bar—something I’ve only encountered once or twice before. Suddenly, it all made sense. In that moment, I knew exactly how the Kim family felt in Parasite—charmed by that glimpse into a fancy lifestyle and enamored by all that it had to offer.
South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, which has drawn in extensive accolades from many a film publication (ourselves included) and took home the first Palm D’or for South Korea, is a film about two families from opposite ends of the class hierarchy coming together and the chaos that ensues from it. Although Bong has relentlessly expressed that the Parasite is not meant to be a political film, it’s hard not to see it as one. With widening wage gaps and a discernable distinction between the have and the have-nots, the film itself is a thrilling, innovative look at those extremes. Left unchecked and the events of Parasite might become an eventual reality; metaphorically, it feels like we’re already there.
So it comes as a surprise that when we (me and four other representatives from other publications) went in to see Bong, he was casually sitting at the table in a black t-shirt with a wide smile. As he carefully listened to us ask our questions one at a time, never did it feel like he saw us as anything other than his fellow man. If he felt any annoyance at talking to us, it never showed. Never mind that like we were talking to one of the most successful and prestigious directors in the world; it felt like we were talking to an old friend.
As the five of us engaged him with our personal questions about the film ranging from set design to story motifs and film elements, it became clear that despite all of the brashness of Parasite‘s politically charged message, the director behind it is first and foremost an artist who tells great stories.
Below is a compilation of all of the scattered questions that we asked him, and Bong’s thoughtful responses. I would definitely recommend watching Parasite before getting into this article. Spoilers ahead!
*Answers were translated from Korean by a translator at the interview.
Parasite is the first film that you’ve made in South Korea in a while. What was it like returning to Korea to shoot this film after the success of Snowpiercer and Okja?
I talked with a production company to do this project in 2013, which was during the post-production of Snowpiercer. So it wasn’t as if I decided that after Snowpiercer and Okja that I was going to return back to Korea. I just followed the stories that I wanted to tell at the time and let it naturally flow.
It doesn’t really feel like I’ve gotten out and come back. It feels like I have all this homework that I’ve given myself and I’m resolving them one by one like I have a blade in my hand, chopping off each tree that comes in my way as I go forward. Which tree I cut off—it’s all based on my impulses at the time.
Could you talk a little about the evolution of your career? Was it intentional to try to talk about a different subject each time?
In terms of the social commentary in my films, it’s not as if I intended to relay this political message through my films. That’s not why I create these narratives. I actually like to focus on the beauty of cinema and the strange portraits of all these individual characters. But no matter how much I focus on an individual, naturally it expands to portraying society in context that surrounds them—the ones that they are surrounded by. I think that’s a very distinctive process for me.
Parasite is very much a comedy that deals with some very serious societal issues, but it kind of devolves into a scarier, more thrilling place towards the end. Could you talk about how you wrote the film?
So during the screenwriting stage, I never decided, “oh, from this point it’s going to be horror and this point it’s going to be a comedy.” Even I’m just following the events as they happen, although I wrote the script myself. I never set a point and put a flag there and say, “this is where the shift will occur.” I think for me, it would actually be more difficult to maintain a singular tone and not have the film go through any tonal shifts. I think that would be more suffocating for me.
One of the most audible reactions from the audience when they were watching the film was when Kim Ki-woo picked up the scholar rock and tried to use it to scare someone away. What is it like balancing these horror and thriller elements in a more grounded story?
I think it’s actually opposite, and the answer is in your question. Because the film is so grounded and faithful to reality, that’s why he can actually do that. Throughout the film that’s the moment that stands out. He’s basically just exaggerating. You’re surprised for a second but afterwards you immediately realize that he would never do that. He’s just exaggerating for the moment, and I think that’s something that as the audience you can very easily accept. So I never really worried about that borderline of what is reality, and what is like a comic book exaggeration. I think even in our normal lives we cross that line.
But that moment does serve a specific function within this film. The son talks about how this stone seems to constantly follow him. It shows that obsession, and of course later on during the climax something happens from that stone. So you can say it’s a little bit of foreshadowing.
Are you looking to cover different topics with each film you make?
I am very easily distracted. It’s hard for me to stay consistent, so this is actually easier and more natural.
What was the process of putting the cast together?
I thought it was very important that just in terms of the looks that they all looked like a family. In Korea we have very small photo studios all around the neighborhood and they always hang family portraits. When you go and visit someone’s house you’ll see their portrait and even without explaining anything, you’ll know that they’re siblings. And so that was very important for me to achieve.
The actor who played the son [Woo-sik Choi], I actually worked with him on Okja. He was the young truck driver in that film. I wrote the script with him already in mind. Later on as I was finishing the script, I had the opportunity to look at the photo of the actress who played the daughter; I put their photos side by side and they looked so similar. It was like I just made a really fascinating discovery! In the opening scene of the film when you see them trying to find Wi-Fi and they’re crouched in front of the toilet together side-by-side, they really look like siblings.
What inspired you to tell this story about the divide between the rich and the poor? Where did the character of Min come from? Isn’t it rare for the rich and poor to intermingle like that?
Of course, it’s not so ordinary, but sometimes it happens. I am middle class growing up, but some of my friends were really poor, and some were really rich. Their relationship is something like that. And also when I was in university, I had many tutoring jobs so it’s quite common in South Korea.
When I was in college I tutored for a very rich family. I tutored a middle school boy and one day he took me to the second floor of their house and showed me their private sauna which is very similar to the one you see in the film. I remember being surprised!
At that time, I felt like I was peeping into the private lives of a completely strange family. I remember that eerie feeling I had spying on their private lives, and that was one of the inspirations for the story. And I really had chatted a lot with that boy that I taught. Of course, I was fired for talking and not really teaching!
Within the film, the fear of North Korea plays a prominent role for some of the characters. It’s not about North Korea, but it’s there. Could you talk about that?
With that part, the original housekeeper imitates that North Korean anger. I think audiences in Korea and Japan will be able to understand the nuances of it more, but I don’t think it’s necessary to really put a lot of political meaning behind it. So it’s kind of like an offbeat humor/comedy moment. But anyways, the famous architect in the movie, he actually designed that basement bunker out of fear for the North Korean invasion. That’s quite real in Korea. Some very old generation rich guys actually made bunkers. It’s a really stupid thing for younger generation people. They’re like, “What the fuck?” It’s that kind of black comedy.
Some older generation rich people have made those secret bunkers—it was in the news! I think that couple could’ve joked around about how thanks to North Korea they were able to live in this secret space.
It’s interesting too because you’re making fun of that paranoia, but in the 50s here, we were really scared. Cold war, Russia, everything. Is that fear of North Korea comparable to that?
I think people have very mixed feelings. The younger generation might think of it as a joke, but still feel a sense of fear against that. And I think it’s very natural—I think people have various points of view for any event given the context in society.
How did you come up with the idea of using the peach as a plot device?
I also have an allergy—I’m allergic to shellfish. But it would be very difficult to just take a piece of shrimp out of the fridge and use it in that manner. With peach fuzz, you can be very discreet with spreading it around. It’s very secretive: the other person won’t know what you’re doing.
Even when we shot that scene, we made sure that the fuzz was reflected on sunlight, and I think it creates a very subtle atmosphere.
One of the more interesting motifs in the film is that of Native American imagery. Park Da-song is fascinated by it as reflected by his teepee, arrows, and headdresses. Where did this fascination come from and why did you choose to use Native American imagery?
In the film you see the elaborate headdresses and that teepee, but for the son and the mother they’re just fancy decorations—very surface level decorations. Kind of like that Ché t-shirt that people wear just because it’s cool. They have no real understanding of the actual history and the complicated context that surrounds Native Americans. It’s just reduced to decor.
And this is a spoiler, but a really important element of the film is the man who is living in the secret basement. In this story, it’s like the protagonist infiltrates this rich family’s house only to discover that there was someone already living there, and I think that’s kind of related to the history of Native Americans as well. I didn’t really intend this while I was writing the script, but in hindsight I realized that some audience members may make that connection.
What were the challenges, in visual terms, for this film?
The biggest challenge in this film is maybe almost everything—90% of the movie—happens in just two houses. It’s very limited space I have. In the case of Okja, it’s totally different. The movie starts from the deep mountainside in Korea and Seoul, the megacity. And the movie ends in New York, in the middle of Manhattan. So many locations there. But in this movie, it was basically like a play, where everything is focused on these two locations. That was why it was important to make sure that the rich house almost feels like its own universe. We had to be very meticulous and detailed in designing this space, and that was a challenging aspect.
The rich house, the poor house, and the neighborhoods surrounding the poor house were all sets that we built. We did a lot of meticulous planning with the production designer for those spaces.
Can you talk about the flooding scene and how those conditions were filmed?
Actually the whole pool neighborhood—the whole town in the movie—is built on a swimming pool and water tanks. We shot every scene in the pool neighborhood and the last two days we put water there. The water looks very dirty but actually the water is very clean. It’s like a facial mud mask water! It looks very shitty, but it’s actually really good for our actors.
It’s the sequence that we prepared the most for. With the toilet just spewing out excrement, we tested that a lot in terms of the pressure. We worked with the special effects and visual effects team a lot to prepare for that sequence.
Do people actually live in those kinds of conditions in Korea?
So there are neighborhoods with that same atmosphere and aesthetic in Korea. We used those neighborhoods as reference. The art department went to those neighborhoods to take the materials. They went to abandoned houses to take decades-old doors and windows, and they used it to build a set.
Those neighborhoods are quickly disappearing in Seoul. They’re all being redeveloped into high rises and residential complexes. So you’re seeing less and less of those neighborhoods.
Aside from everything we talked about, what else do you want people to take away from the movie?
Personally, I’m a cinephile myself, and I love watching classic films. Sometimes, even when I watch classic films from 50 years ago they still feel very contemporary and current, and I love that feeling. I want people to remember this film as an honest record—an honest portrayal of the times that we currently live in. More than just being a record, I want them to see this film years and years afterwards and get the feeling that it’s still contemporary. It’s still about our current world. Maybe that’s too much to ask for, but that’s what I hope.
Parasite is out in select theaters in the US on October 11, 2019. Photos courtesy of NEON and CJ Entertainment.
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu and four other reporters on October 3, 2019 in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!