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Parasite director Bong Joon-ho on the success of his subversive tragicomedy

Bong Joon-ho. Photo/Cine21/Supplied

The festival gongs for Korean film Parasite are making it a contender for film of the year.

The title of Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite might make it sound like another creature feature. After all, in 2006’s Host – the film that made the rest of the world take note of the brilliantly genre-bending South Korean director – he had a giant monster bursting from Seoul’s Han River. In 2017’s Netflix-backed Okja, the titular character was a giant pig genetically engineered by a food corporation but raised by a South Korean girl.

That film followed 2013’s Snowpiercer, Bong’s first English-language film, a post-apocalyptic tale of class warfare aboard a giant train that circles a frozen Earth.

Parasite, though, is a film requiring little in the way of special effects and a return to relative domestic normality. It’s the story of how two Seoul families collide when the destitute Kims plot to become the hired help – tutors to their kids, maid, chauffeur – to the fabulously wealthy Parks in their architectural wonder of a home.

Bong describes his film as a “tragicomedy” and it also plays as a twisty thriller. In May, it won the Palme D’Or, the top prize at Cannes, beating films by Quentin Tarantino, Terrence Malick, Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, Jim Jarmusch and Pedro Almodóvar in the competition. It’s also just won the best-film prize at the Sydney Film Festival, from where Bong talked to the Listener through a translator.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Winning at Cannes was a first for a Korean director. Have you got over the excitement yet?

To be honest, I got over the excitement on the way back from Cannes on the aeroplane, where I was actually writing a new screenplay. I’ve got work that is ongoing, so I’m working on some of them in Australia. It’s just part of my life.

It must have been very big news at home.

When I arrived at the airport, there were around a hundred journalists waiting for me and a press conference. That was amazing. I think it’s because it was the first time [a Korean film had won], but I believe that soon there will be Korean directors who are younger who will be awarded even bigger prizes and something like this is not going to be big news any more.

Scenes from Parasite, with its globally resonant theme of the contrasting lives of the rich and the poor. Photo/Supplied

Given that Snowpiercer and Okja had international casts and were aimed at international audiences, was Parasite made more for a Korean audience first with the hope that it would work further afield?

I didn’t really want to limit it to just a Korean audience. But I do agree that there is some fine detail where probably only Koreans would get it. However, the main thing in the story is between the wealthy and the poor. It’s a global problem and I believe that no country will be free from that issue. At Cannes, a lot of people from many different countries made comments that this story would work equally well if remade in their nation.

Parasite isn’t the first of your movies to comment on things such as inequality. Where does that political side of your film-making come from? What is it in your background that makes you want to put that in your movies?

The film is about a poor family and a wealthy family. Personally, I think I’m in the middle. I was born in a middle-class family and still consider myself middle class. Probably the size of my house will be somewhere in between as well. In our everyday life, you always bump into people from poor families and wealthy families among your friends and your cousins. Some are rich, some are poor. You encounter all these different people, the class differences, on a daily basis.

Palme d’Or recipient Bong Joon-ho foresees a day when young Korean directors routinely pick up international awards. Photo/Getty Images

With your films showing the problems of class and capitalism in societies such as South Korea, do you have a solution to those problems or is it just your job to hold a mirror up to them?

Snowpiercer was a sci-fi film, so I could actually suggest a solution. Quite simply, it was to destroy the whole system and escape the train. I understand it’s unrealistic, but it was possible because it was sci-fi. However, in this film, which is a lot closer to our reality, it’s very difficult to suggest the solution. However, the message I believe is there is no escape, no way out, from capitalism and the reality of the gig economy.

This film is on a smaller scale and had a smaller cast than your previous two. Does that make it more personal?

I don’t think it’s more personal, but as you mentioned, it’s a smaller-scale film. When working on films of a massive scale, all the visual effects and those sorts of things consume a lot of the director’s energy. However, on a film of Parasite’s size, the director can put more effort into the details of the characters and into the cinematic approach, which I believe was really good. So, in the future, I believe that I will probably do more movies this size.

Scenes from Parasite. Photo/Supplied

One thing I learnt from the film was never to put money into a Taiwanese cake shop. More than one character mentions it as the reason they are now so poor.

It’s a very sad story of people in South Korea and Taiwan. A lot of people who are self-employed ran Taiwanese cake shops … they had franchises all over and, at one moment, they all, like, collapsed. They all went under and a lot of people ended up with huge debts and the characters in the film are in the same situation.

This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.