Bong Joon-ho interview: “After I won the Palme d’Or for Parasite, I realised nothing had changed”

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is picking up awards and acclaim with his thrilling social satire Parasite. The filmmaker talks to Alistair Harkness about breaking through in the West with a foreign language film
Bong Joon-Ho PIC: Frazer Harrison/Getty ImagesBong Joon-Ho PIC: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Bong Joon-Ho PIC: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Right now, Bong Joon-ho is probably the most revered director in the world. Like director pal Quentin Tarantino – who once likened him to Spielberg in his prime – he’s acquired superstar status, becoming a chat show darling and as likely to walk away with this year’s best film and best director Oscars as Tarantino himself.

The reason is his new movie Parasite, a brilliantly constructed, nothing-is-quite-what-it-seems social horror thriller about a family on the margins insinuating themselves into the lives of a wealthy clan oblivious to their scheming ways. Dissecting the class system and its attendant wealth inequality with scalpel-sharp precision, it made history last May when it became the first South Korean film to win the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. Since then it has become a genuine US (and global) box-office phenomenon, topped dozens of critics’ end-of-year polls and, in the last month, has made history again by becoming the first Korean film to win a Golden Globe. It has also just picked up four Bafta and six Academy Award nominations.

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When we talk on the phone, though, it’s early December and the big award nods are still a month away. Still, the buzz surrounding Parasite has already started penetrating mainstream consciousness in a way that’s unusual for a foreign language film with no internationally recognisable stars. True, Roma may have inspired plenty of critical reveries last year, but was director Alfonso Cuaron invited on US mainstay The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to promote it? He was not. Bong was. What’s more, the clip of him and his translator, Sharon Choi, cracking their genial host up went viral when it aired a few days later.

As it happens, our interview takes place the next day. Bong is already in London for the latest round of awards campaigning, yet he seems to have a kind of pragmatic, eye-of-the-storm perspective on all the attention this brings. Winning Cannes was, he says via Choi, “a great honour,” but he likens it to a scene in Parasite where one of his protagonists stares at his basement apartment filling with storm water after he and his family have already had a taste of the lavish lifestyle of their new employers. “I looked at where I was standing and realised nothing had changed except the trophy that I have,” he says. “I’ve been working on two projects and since I won the award I just continue to work on those projects.”

Still, it seems oddly appropriate that Parasite is the film that’s raised his mainstream profile in the West. Bong describes it as a story about “infiltration” and one of its themes is whether or not you can really belong in a world where the rules are so different. Coming off the back of the big budget, largely English language sci-fi parables Snowpiercer and Okja, it’s tempting to view his return home as a reaction to disgraced American producer Harvey Weinstein’s well-publicised creative mistreatment of the former and the ire the latter’s status as a Netflix project generated amongst cinephiles. Bong, however, cautions against this interpretation simply because he’d already lined Parasite up as his next movie before shooting them. “It’s not as if I went through the production of Snowpiercer and Okja and decided I had to go back to Korea to make this.”
In fact, he came up with the idea in 2013, fascinated by the secret desire people have to peek into the private lives of others. “I wanted to portray that desire – this desire to infiltrate – in a cinematic way. I think that especially when you’re infiltrating a rich family, there’s an uncanny sense of fascination that comes from that.”

 Bong drew on his own university experiences working as a tutor for a wealthy family as the starting point for the character of Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), teenage son of the Kim family, who bluffs his way into a job as an academic coach for the well-to-do Park family’s eldest daughter. Once he’s got his feet under the table, Ki-woo helps his father (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), his mother (Jang Hye-jin) and his sister (Park So-dam) to systematically usurp the Park family’s other domestic staff, all the while keeping their own connections to one another secret.
What follows is too deliciously twisted to spoil here, but suffice to say that our sympathies for both families keep fluctuating throughout thanks to Bong’s commitment to complicated characterisation: he neither demonises the tech-rich Park family with their sleek modernist house, nor idealises the Kims, who’ve fallen by the wayside after investing in a Taiwanese cake-selling franchise that’s gone belly-up – a real financial scandal in South Korea that Bong wanted to draw attention to. Which is pure Bong: all his films have a strong undercurrent of socio-political commentary, something that enhances rather than detracts from the genre thrills he’s a master of creating.  

He puts that down to his college days as a sociology major – though not because he did much studying. “I spent most of my time in the cinema club,” he says. (He later traces his love of film back to seeing Bicycle Thieves and The Wages of Fear on TV before he was ten.) But he also credits the rapidly changing social structure of South Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s with widening his perspective on the world. “It went through a very dynamic moment: the military regime left, we were becoming a democracy very fast and it was when pop culture exploded on the scene.”

His subsequent interest in filmmaking coincided with the explosion of the country’s own nascent film industry. His sophomore effort, Memories of Murder, helped define the South Korean new wave of the early 2000s and he cemented his reputation with his 2006 monster movie The Host, which became the most successful South Korean film ever. It was a good time to be an ambitious young filmmaker with something to say. Or as he puts it: “I was less damaged as I was trying to find my place as a filmmaker.”

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He knows that’s not the case today. “It’s become much more difficult to break down that barrier into the industry.”

Maybe the success and themes of Parasite will change things again. At the very least it might encourage more cinemas and distributors to release foreign language films. As he said when he accepted his Golden Globe: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Amen to that. ■

Parasite is in cinemas from 7 February

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