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Rather than worrying about the nuclear threat from his homeland’s northern neighbour, South Korean director and screenwriter Bong Joon-ho has used his latest Palme d’Or-winning film, Parasite, to home in on the country’s increasing economic divide. “Of course we do worry about North Korea and want peace to come and our relationship to improve, but it’s not something that happens right next to me. What we really feel with our skin are economic issues.” By Andy Hazel.

Palme d’Or winner Bong Joon-ho

Parasite director Bong Joon-ho.
Credit: Courtesy Madman

A sea breeze plays gently with the walls of the beachside marquee behind Bong Joon-ho as the director stands, arms aloft, chanting: “Sonny! Sonny! Sonny!”

Director Bong – to those working with him at Cannes – is excited. Not by the positive reception for his film Parasite, the first Korean winner of the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, but by a soccer player – South Korean Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min. Sonny is due to play an important game next week and, as Bong’s translator explains in her even American-Korean accent, “Director Bong said he wants more to talk about soccer.”

That Bong would rather discuss anything than Parasite is understandable. The work of a fastidious perfectionist, the film was seven years in gestation. Set in Seoul, it tells the story of a poor family inveigling their way into a wealthy one. Cinema prognosticators have claimed it is on track to become the biggest global box office success of any Palme d’Or winner.

Eventually, when talk of soccer dies down, Bong acquiesces to questions about his film, sitting beside his neatly attired translator on a royal blue couch.

Although he is a rare director whose work is adored both at Cannes and in territories where subtitles can equate to commercial death, Bong wears his success lightly. He doesn’t seem to agonise over how to define his work: “I ultimately think of myself as a genre filmmaker. I really enjoy the excitement and anticipation that comes from genre conventions regardless of whether you satisfy or break them. I like to work within that boundary … but I don’t like social issues that sit like a nail shooting out of the film. I want there to be enjoyment in that process naturally. I like it when satire seeps through and melts into the story like…” Here, his translator trails off, unsure whether her translation is correct, “… like a faint rain.”

This idea of “faint rain” instructs the way politics play in Bong’s films. His focus is on characters, the forces that pull them into their predicament not explicitly referenced.

“I’m sure it’s the same for all of you, but we all know people who are rich and poor,” he says of Parasite. “So, I drew inspiration from my daily life. It’s very difficult for the poor and the rich to come together, physically, in the same space. They’re always segregated, like in planes. Even the schools and the restaurants they visit are very different. The only situation where they can come so intimately together, where they can smell each other, is through a household employment job – like tutoring or driving or being a housemaid.”

I ask whether his decision to make the film in South Korea was prompted by the country’s increasing economic divide. He takes a second to consider his answer, running his hands over his prickly beard and through his tangled hair.

“I first came up with this story and started talking to others about it in 2013, and that was during post-production of Snowpiercer,” he says, referencing his biggest international hit, a film set on a train carrying the last humans on Earth.

“From when I started developing the story [of Parasite] to the end of the film, it took around six or seven years, so it doesn’t exactly correlate to what’s going on in Korea,” he says. “But, in hindsight, Snowpiercer is about class struggle and class difference using sci-fi and action. [With Parasite] I wanted to talk about the gap between rich and poor, a similar theme, in a more realistic way on a more intimate and smaller scale.”

Parasite is confined almost entirely within two homes. One, a cramped below-street-level apartment, which offers a view up to an alleyway used as a urinal by the local drunk. The other, a high-walled Modernist mansion, which resembles a museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

“I grew up in a middle-class family, in between the poor and the rich family in the film,” Bong explains. His was a creative family – a graphic designer father, an author grandmother, his sister has become a fashion designer and his brother a literature professor. They lived in the city of Daegu, a couple of hours’ drive south of Seoul. Though he decided to become a filmmaker at an early age, he initially rejected an artistic life, getting a degree in sociology before moving to Seoul to study at the Korean Academy of Film Arts.

“Like the protagonists of this film, I also tutored for a very rich family while I was in college,” he says of the 20-something siblings at the centre of Parasite, Ki-woo and Ki-jung. “When I first entered their house, I had this very eerie and unfamiliar sense. The sequence that depicts Ki-woo entering the house is pretty similar to what I experienced. They had a sauna on the second floor. At the time, it was quite shocking to me. A sauna in the house. Very strange.”

During college in Seoul, Bong fell in with a tight-knit group of directors, actors, producers and cinematographers who he helped with their films in the years after graduation. The first film he directed was 2000’s Barking Dogs Never Bite, a darkly funny story about a university professor driven to increasing acts of depravity by the sound of his neighbour’s dog. It was shot almost entirely in the apartment block in which Bong then lived.

In 2003, he called in favours from his college friends to make his second feature, Memories of Murder. Based on a true story, it follows two detectives investigating South Korea’s first serial killer and became Bong’s first worldwide critical and commercial success. It wasn’t until four years later though, with his film The Host, that Bong became well known. A monster movie inspired by an incident in which a United States Army general dumped 75 litres of formaldehyde into Seoul’s Han River, The Host was described by one critic as “South Korea’s first legitimate anti-American film”. It remains one of the biggest box office hits in South Korean history.

A key relationship in Bong’s success in South Korea has been his pairing with the actor Song Kang-ho, a regular in his films. In Parasite, Song plays the poorer family’s downtrodden patriarch. “He is a great influence on my process,” Bong says. “When I write a character with him in mind, I have incredible faith in his power to persuade the audience, sort of drag them by their collar to his point of view. I feel like I can become bolder when I’m writing.”

That so many of Bong’s stories have focused on middle-class or poor Koreans, and with Song Kang-ho’s charismatic everyman at their centre, is part of the director’s broad appeal. Pressure on familial relationships often drives his films, such as Mother and Parasite, or is something to be negotiated by characters who are variously battling a giant monster, as in The Host, a post-apocalyptic fascistic regime, as in Snowpiercer, or a ruthless corporation, as in Okja, the film for which he is best known in Australia.

Okja tells the story of a young girl battling a multinational food company for the ownership of a genetically designed “super pig” that is also being sought by animal liberation activists. The film is notable for its mix of tones – it is a family-friendly eco-parable and a social drama spiked with wry comedy – but it is most remarkable for the power of the visual effects to provoke emotion, another bold example of Bong’s visual inventiveness paired with innovative storytelling.

“I had a great experience making Okja and I have no regrets,” he says, “but with Parasite it felt like I was able to look at the film through a microscope. I was able to pay attention to more details, and that was what was great. Because I am a writer as well as a director, during the screenwriting I made the whole structure of the film. All the blocking, all the lines and all the locations in the movie, including the house. Which is why the production designer of the film had such a hard time. I had all these requests for the structure of the house because it was really important that when one character is doing something, another character shouldn’t be able to see that character. So, this idea of visibility and non-visibility in the house is very important. The production designer took my sketch to an architect for advice, and the architect said, ‘No one builds houses this way. Architecturally, it doesn’t make any sense.’”

He offers an impression of the architect, his palms raised upwards: “This is ridiculous!” Both he and his translator dissolve into laughter. Comedy is another of Bong’s cinematic signatures, enabling his films to tackle such a wide range of social issues without feeling didactic. Comic twists escalate out of dramatic sequences. Elsewhere, interactions between sympathetic characters blend pathos, narrative surprises and sporadic violence.

“Regardless of whether it’s laughter or fear, when you see events unfold that you don’t expect you feel very flustered,” Bong says. “And I enjoy that sense of being very flustered. I’m a little hesitant to say this because I don’t want to seem too much of a… uh… pervert,” he continues, a smile playing at the edges of his mouth. “But when the audience is laughing at some of these scenes, at the same time I want them to doubt their own laughter and think, ‘Can I really laugh at this?’ I want them to almost feel sorry that they are laughing. That’s what I really enjoy.”

Bong says he doesn’t divide his work into those projects that will appeal to Korean audiences and those that will find an audience internationally.

“But I also can’t deny that I get a lot of joy out of creating a story where I depict situations and details that a Korean audience understands and can laugh at. The audience really laughed out loud at the Lumière,” he says, referring to the film’s Cannes premiere, which was followed by an eight-minute standing ovation. “But I think in Korea we would have around 10 per cent more laughter, and the 10 per cent is what I’m talking about.”

He points to a scene in Parasite in which a character mentions that a job for a security guard attracted more than 500 applications from college graduates. “This is not an exaggeration,” he says. “This is from an article that was published in Korea. Of course, with the new administration our economy has been getting better, but that was actually how things were pretty recently.”

The world’s interest in South Korea is largely focused on its relationship with its northern neighbour. But Bong says domestically there are more complicated social tensions that define life from day to day.

“Of course we do worry about North Korea and want peace to come and our relationship to improve, but it’s not something that happens right next to me. What we really feel with our skin are economic issues,” he says. “It’s interesting to see the reaction of people in the US or in Japan who received news of the missile threats from North Korea. Some of my friends in the US will tell me, ‘Are you okay? Are you really going to continue living in Korea? Come to LA.’ But mostly Koreans don’t really think about it. We hope that the politicians will take care of this issue, but it doesn’t affect how much money is in my pocket. Of course we are afraid of war, but we go on with our daily lives because there is nothing we can do. Like the family in Parasite, I think the economy is a more immediate issue.”

Depicting that economic divide is done with efficiency in Parasite, and as we come back to this proximity of the two Korean families as the generators of dramatic tension, Bong turns again to the significance of scent.

“For Parasite, I wanted to create this very intimate feeling where the audience could almost sense the smell too,” he says. “And, of course, cinema is a visual and auditory medium, but I relied a lot on my actors to show very detailed acting to almost fool the audience into thinking that they can smell. The smell I imagine is if you play in the ocean all day with your socks and your shoes and afterwards come out and just take out the socks,” he says, laughing. “We’re all human so we know what that is. It’s the same all across the world.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2019 as "King Bong". Subscribe here.

Andy Hazel
is a Melbourne-based writer. He is The Saturday Paper's editorial assistant.