“Who directed Rififi? It was Jules Dassin, right? That was the first-place winner. Such a great movie.”
For the past half hour or so, Bong Joon Ho has been turning to his translator for help with his responses; when it comes to talking about his own work, the South Korean writer-director likes to issue considerate, deliberate answers to questions, and admittedly feels more comfortable doing that in his native tongue. When the subject of others’ movies comes up, however, he bypasses his go-between and answers, excitedly and quickly, in English. Director Bong has barely even let a question about past works that might have influenced Parasite — his award-winning new film that goes into wider release this weekend — reach its natural conclusion before he leans forward and begins reciting titles, rapid-fire style. It’s like watching a 50-year-old college professor turn into a giddy undergrad in a blink.
While Bong was starting production on his seventh feature, he held a contest with his assistant directors for fun: Name your favorite “staircase scenes” and they might get a hat tip in the film. Dassin’s methodical heist movie, he says, ended up taking the top prize. Joseph Losey’s The Servant, a Sixties psychological character study about class and identity, was a close second; several Hitchcock movies were strong runner-ups. “There’s the staircase in Psycho, in Norman Bates’ house, where Martin Balsam goes up…” — the director is standing now, miming the actor’s ascent before pretending to fall backwards. Then he begins to act as if he’s carrying a tray. “And that Cary Grant movie, the one where he’s carrying a glass of milk up a winding staircase? Notorious! Amazing.” The translator is staring at the filmmaker, slightly wide-eyed. Bong is grinning ear to ear.
Bong and his crew constantly referred to Parasite as a “staircase movie” while they were making it, and the two-way idea of these architectural structures — that you can go up them or down them, that they can bridge gaps or keep folks separated — plays heavily into his class-conscious drama. There’s a short flight of stairs that leads down into the cramped apartment where the Kim family lives, a sub-basement level dwelling with a window that looks out on a dingy alleyway favored by urinating drunks. The father, Ki-taek (longtime Bong collaborator Song Kang Ho), is barely keeping his head above water financially; his ex-Olympian wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin) and their teenage kids, Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) and Ki-jung (Park So Dam), help pay the rent by folding pizza boxes. Like a lot of folks, they’re essentially one paycheck away from poverty.
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Then Ki-woo hears about some rich folks looking for an English tutor for their daughter. His sister forges a fancy university diploma for him, pretends he knows what he’s doing (he really doesn’t) and voila! The young man gets the job. He suddenly finds himself spending a lot of time inside the modernist mini-mansion owned by tech millionaire Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun) and his wife, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong). That house also has a staircase that leads from a spacious living room with massive picture windows to the Parks’ tony second-floor bedrooms. (Bong purposefully asked the production designer to frame the stairs on one side by a glass pane, so he could “film people ascending, which you don’t usually see.” He modeled it off a similar one, he notes, that shows up in the house featured in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer.)
And when Mrs. Park happens to mention that their precocious prepubescent son needs a private art teacher, Ki-woo says he knows just the person for the job. Once he’s successfully passed off Ki-jung as a painting scholar and smuggled his sister into the household, it’s only a matter of time before they integrate their parents into the mix as well. Thanks to a few well-engineered dirty tricks, the Parks find themselves with a brand new housekeeper and chauffeur. The rich foursome go away on vacation. The Kims more or less move in, treating themselves to all of the perks enjoyed by their aristocratic employers. They have officially “replaced” their upper-crust counterparts.
There is, we should note, a third staircase that plays a part in Parasite‘s narrative — one hidden behind a wall and hiding a secret. And it’s the introduction of this unexpected entryway at the movie’s halfway point that detours Director Bong’s film into a completely different realm, and turns what was a sly satire of upward mobility by any means necessary into a far more interesting, and far more dangerous movie. It’s not far-fetched to suggest that the implications behind this extraordinary left turn was a big reason why it caused a lot of controversy when it was released in its creator’s home country.
It’s also not a leap to think that the way Bong so beautifully syncs these two parts together is what helped Parasite become the first South Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and immediately turned it into a near-consensual critical favorite in the States. When it kicked off a limited theatrical run in one downtown Manhattan theater on October 11th, every screening during its opening weekend was sold out days in advance. Awards-circuit prognosticators consider it a lock for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar, with a handful convinced that it has a shot at a Best Picture nomination as well. Many folks believe that this funny, shocking, subversive parable of class-warfare sabotage is one of the single best films of the last 10 years. Other think it’s merely the latest masterpiece in one of the most exhilarating, unpredictable filmographies in world cinema today.
Ask Bong Joon Ho what, exactly, was the genesis for this project, and he jokingly says he can narrow his “Eureka!” moment down to three respective things. Part of it, the filmmaker notes, comes from his own firsthand experience. “I worked as a tutor for a very rich family in college,” he says, and still vividly remembers feeling slightly out of place every time he stepped into his fellow student’s luxurious house. “I was fired after two months, but I always had the sense that I was secretly infiltrating a stranger’s home.”
The second bit of inspiration came around six years ago, when he was deep into preproduction on Snowpiercer, his blockbuster adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. Given that the film focuses on an express train that doubles as a movable, hierarchy-driven society, class issues were already heavy on his mind. “I wanted to keep exploring these notions,” Bong says. “But I needed to take a break from big genre movies and from Hollywood movies” — his experience dealing with Harvey Weinstein regarding that movie’s final cut has been well-documented — “and tell a more realistic story set in Korea.” Though the kid-friendly eco-fantasy Okja ended up jockeying for position as his next project, he was planning on doing something a little more down to earth.
The last bit slightly coincided with the second one, the filmmaker says, because he was also toying with the idea of doing a theatrical piece as well. “I was trying to come up with something for the stage, yeah,” Bong says. “Because space is limited when you’re talking about working in a theater, I began to think about something that would work for one or two locations. I had an idea about a story that would take place in two homes, one rich and one poor.”
Bong started jotting down scene after scene in 2013, though he noticed how he’d began thinking of camera angles and cuts as he was writing the exchanges between characters. Soon, his play had morphed into a film script, which he slowly began sharing with his production crew. “When I explained the story to my producer and cinematographer, I told them: It’s an infiltration of the house, one by one,” he recalls. “The son brings the daughter in; she brings the dad in as a driver; he brings his wife in as a housekeeper. That’s how the trap is set. You know, ‘Isn’t that funny?!’ It was basically just the first hour. When I laid out the story, it always ended there.”
As Okja began to take up more of Bong’s attention, he put the in-progress Parasite script aside; the intention was always to return to it and see what happened next. He had a few different versions of what the second half might be, but when he returned to finish it — “like actually sitting down and typing it on my computer” — in the fall of 2017, he spent close to four months letting ideas percolate. The last half didn’t come until the last two months of writing, Bong admits, partially inspired by rumors he’d heard of houses with secret panic rooms and hiding places. “There are some that do have bunkers for avoiding loan sharks or preparing for war from North Korea,” he notes. “Real estate agents use them as selling points now, I’ve heard. I think you have them in the U.S. too, right? For potential Cloverfield-type situations?”
Indeed, once that second hour reveals what lurks at the bottom of that narrow third staircase, Parasite turns into a different film altogether — or rather, one of several movies existing within the framework of Bong’s family feuding. Part of the wave of South Korean filmmakers that started making a name for themselves in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he’s achieved a staggering popularity at home and abroad largely (but not exclusively) because of his ability to use recognizable genres to delve into deeper social issues: serial killer procedurals (Memories of Murder), kaiju monster movies (The Host), detective-driven murder mysteries (Mother), dystopic sci-fi (Snowpiercer), fantasy adventures (Okja). Parasite, on the other hand, is like a game of movie-category musical chairs, stopping briefly on everything from family melodrama to slasher flick. It’s still a realistic story set in Korea — per Bong’s original intent — but the movie’s ability to switch tones on a dime adds to the sense that you’re genuinely unsure what’s going to happen next.
“Yes, I was fairly unsure of what was going to happen next when I was writing it, too!” Bong exclaims with a laugh. “It’s not as if I divide the script into sequences for the actors: This is the horror section, this is the comedy section, and so on. Plus the production schedule means you’re shooting everything at different times, so what’s the point? To me, the central core of the story were always these characters — that they not be monsters but the kind of folks you’d see in the streets, your friends and your neighbors. And when you retain that core, even when the film sways its mood and changes its style — from black comedy to caper film to horror — it’s thanks to the characters that you still feel like everything is part of one coherent unit. My direction to the cast was: You’re the through line. I’m just recording human behavior.”
He does cop to the fact that Parasite is a slight departure from his more easily classifiable works, noting that when he first started mentioning the title to people, there was a lot of confusion — “they thought it was this [Invasion of the] Body Snatchers sci-fi type of film because of the title!” Questions about the film’s name have, in fact, come up at many of the post-screening Q&As Bong’s done over the last few months, with someone inevitably inquiring: Who exactly are the parasites here?
“That was also the very first question I got from our marketing team as well,” the director says. “They were worried that some members of the audience would be uncomfortable with what we were suggesting. ‘So, you are saying all members of the working class are parasites?!?!” There was also concern around a particular line that Mr. Park says as well, when he talks about subway riders having ‘a particular smell.’ Most people would be coming out of the movie and getting on the subway to go home, they told me. ‘You’re going to offend most of the audience!’
“I told them, ‘Well, obviously the rich are parasites in terms of labor…they don’t drive or do anything on their own.'” Bong continues. “‘And you can look at the other family and see how they’re integrating themselves into the household, and feeding off their hosts, so…’ I’ll answer the question if someone asks it in a Q&A, but I told the marketing team that I wouldn’t try to define what the title means to an audience. Let them have their own ideas about who it pertains to.”
And does Director Bong think that the class gap can be bridged — that chasm that currently separates the haves and have nots? He smiles. “I think my answer to that question is the last scene of the movie. I wanted to be honest. I wanted to be honest with the fear we all feel right now.”