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"Without humour I would feel suffocated" Interview with Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho on PARASITE

Do you remember your initial idea for the film? What was the trigger?
The starting point is different for each film and I can’t always define it. MOTHER, for example, started with the actress. I desperately wanted to make a grotesque film with her. And THE HOST, well, it was Loch Ness. I loved the story about the monster since I was kid, so again, I had a very clear starting point. But with PARASITE it was a little bit more ambiguous, more like a stain on your pants, you know? You go home, take off your pants and you find a stain, but you don’t know where it’s coming from. Somehow it was already always there. And with this film it was similar. I remember already talking about this idea to people around me back in 2013.

What did you tell people back then?

Six years ago, the working title was “Decalcomania”, and the basic idea was to show two families who have all four members each. And it was as if they somewhat where a decal of one another. I knew it was going to be about a rich family and a poor family standing opposite each other and I was interested to see what happens when you mix these two families with one another. I was intrigued by the strange situations that unfolds as a result of this. I suppose that you could say that the social problem, the class differences and the political background were already there at that point, in this early version of the film.

When the director of THE HOST makes a new film called PARASITE, you can’t help but initially expect another sci-fi or horror movie. Where you worried that the title could be misleading the audience in a way?
In Korea, the original title of THE HOST actually means “monster”. But, of course, in English with THE HOST and PARASITE, a lot of people will make the connection and might assume that this film is some sort of sequel. So, before I always had to tell everyone that this is not a classic genre film in that sense. There was even a journalist who ask the actors, “Who of you has a parasite in their body?” To which I responded, “We’re all clean. And very hygienic. In terms of sanitation, we’re all perfect.”

Your films are generally hard to pigeonhole. How do you personally strike a balance between the different genre elements that are incorporated into your works?
I consider myself a genre filmmaker. Sometimes I follow the conventions of the respective genre and sometimes I break them, but I don’t think I ever stray far outside of that genre boundary. And to be honest, I feel more comfortable when I’m working within those boundaries. However, that doesn’t mean that the way I use genre in my films is anywhere near your typical Hollywood style. In that sense, I think, you get to feel the influence of my Korean roots. On the other hand, I think the emotions that the film conveys are something that are shared by everyone who’s got a heart. They are universal feelings. For me, PARASITE was more about a strange sense of sadness, much more than rage. Ki-woo, the son character in the poor family, for instance, he is someone who doesn’t really get angry despite the fact that he faces very extreme situations and extreme poverty as well. He just accepts everything. And if you look at the film from his perspective, I think you can really feel that sense of sadness.

Contrary to the sadness you mention there is a lot of humor in PARASITE, and also in your films in general. Does it come naturally to you the way you find the right tone for the stories you tell?
It’s a very instinctive process. I’m never really conscious about which elements I am blending and how. Like a bartender creating a cocktail, I don’t have particular ratios, I am not sure how much whiskey I should pour in. You just pour what feels right to me into the glass. But it’s true, humour is an important element in my films. I think, without humor I could never work. I would feel very suffocated.

“Bong Joon-ho himself is the genre."

You mentioned it already, your film explores class differences, the gap between the rich and the poor, but also the contradictions in the system.
Even if I don’t talk say it out loud, it’s about polarisation. The gap between the rich and the poor is something that is very obvious, and there’s this big question starring you in the face: Why, despite all our efforts and the improvements we make to the system, isn’t this gap decreasing? I have this fear that comes from that question and that’s very much related to the last scene.
Rather than the fact that there is this huge gap, what’s more frightening is this thought that we’re not going to be able to resolve the problem, not in our generation and not in our children’s generation. That’s indicated in the film when the son tells himself that, one day, he will buy this house, and he has that determination. But as the audience and when you look it from a distance, you doubt it. It just seems to be an impossible thing to do, and that’s where the sadness comes from. We actually once calculated how many years he would have to save on an average income and without really spending anything to be able to buy the house. It would take him 547 years to get there.

If we assume that both families are parasites in one way or the other, which one is more dangerous?
It’s true, I often say that even the rich family can be considered as parasites. The story is about this poor family infiltrating the house of the rich family, but it’s also the rich family pulling them in and calling them into their home because they can’t do anything on their own. They need someone to drive them, someone to wash the dishes, and in that sense, they are parasites as well. I think most dangerous are not the ones who are forced into a corner to become parasites, but the ones who, with intention, try to suck the blood out of others. And who could that be in this film? On the other hand, it’s not that simple. I don’t think there are any straightforward villains or victims in this film.

The controversy around Netflix films at festivals continues. How do you look back to your collaboration with the streaming service when you were working on OKJA?
I wanted to make that film and, when I was filming it and during the production process, I was very happy. I had free rein. Netflix gave me total creative control over the director’s final cut. The only problem was the distribution. I hoped that they would be more generous in terms of releasing the film in theatres, but it wasn’t very easy coming to a compromise and persuading the relevant people. They did eventually allow OKJA to be released in 150 theaters in Korea which gave me some sort of relief. And of course, streaming has its advantages as well, but in the end, theaters are still the best way to watch the film.

Are you in any way involved in the Snowpiercer TV series that is currently in the works?
I recently heard that the first season of the TV series has been completed and it’s set to air next year. But I’m not really involved with the project. I am credited as an executive producer and also as the creator of the original story, but the only thing I really did was that I visited the set once. It felt very strange to visit that train set again though. A very bizarre feeling. It felt like going to the military twice. Do you know what I mean?

In SNOWPIERCER you had the train, in PARASITE it is the house of the rich family that really becomes its own character in the film. What were you looking for in the architecture of the house?
Both the villa of the rich people and the basement flat of the poor family are sets that were built specifically for the film. And because around sixty percent of the story takes place in the rich house, it basically became like another protagonist that required very detailed planning. By the time the script was finished, the basic structure of the house was already determined. I drew out the basic sketch and handed it to the production designer. But when he took my sketch to an actual architect, the architect just railed, “No one builds houses this way. This can’t ever be an actual place.” In other words, the production designer really struggled in between my vision of the house as the director and the instructions he received from the architect, to achieve the structure that I wanted and to also actually make the house believable and realistic. And I think he did a great job, but I am sure there are architects out there who see the film and think it’s impossible.

Why is that?
I don’t know but architects are very strange people. I loved this house. I would want to live in a house like this. But they always only said, “This is ridiculous. It’s fucking stupid.” Crazy, don’t you think?

Apart from the house, what was your favorite character in the film?
I hope the actors don’t read this interview. And I have to say that I love all characters and all actors in the film. But since we’re not in Korea and they’re not going to read it, to be very honest, the character I enjoyed the most is Moon-gwang, the original housemaid. As a protagonist, she does sort of turn the film upside-down at one point. And in terms of her acting, Lee Jung-eun has something very strange and eerie to her personality. When you’re filming with her, you don’t really know what she’s going to do five or ten seconds later on. She has a very animalistic instinct in her.

Quite a few critics like to compare your film to other recent socio-critical works such as SHOPLIFTERS by Hirokatzu Kore-eda and US by Jordan Peele. Do you feel there’s a momentum behind this class-consciousness? Does the current political climate around the world demands a closer examination of such topics again?
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Jordan Peele’s US yet, but I was very surprised when I saw the trailer for the first time, because it features an illustration of decalcomania. And as I mentioned at the beginning, that was the original idea to the film. But I think as filmmakers and artists, we have no choice but to grapple with and reflect the times we live in. We are moved by what’s happening around us. I’m not personally acquainted with Peele or Hirokazu, but I think as creators of works of art we all draw inspiration from the same time – each in their own way and belief.

What genre would you say, then, does your film come closest to?
I would say PARASITE is a dark horror black comedy social satire action flick. But my U.S. distributor recently sent me a review from that said, “Bong Joon-ho himself is the genre.” And that I like the most.