Bong Joon ho is the talk of the town for his genre-bending new film “Parasite.” The filmmaker collected the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is expected to be a major presence at the upcoming award season. Past notable films include “Snowpiercer,” “The Host” and “Okja.”
Bong recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Zach Laws about his reaction to winning the Palme d’Or, how he explores the human condition and class divide in “Parasite” and his collaborations with actor Song Kang-ho.
Gold Derby: Bong Joon-ho, your new film, “Parasite,” has received international acclaim and a lot of awards buzz. I wanna start off just by asking you about the Palme d’Or win. Did you have a sense that you might’ve been in the running for that? Were you surprised by it?
Bong Joon ho: I didn’t expect it at all. It was so shocking. It was a huge honor. Me, the actors, my team members had such a great night but the next day I tried to forget it as much as possible. On my flight out of Cannes, I started writing a new script.
GD: Well, I’m really excited to hear about that one. It’s really hard to talk about this movie without giving away a bunch of spoilers but I’m gonna try my best. Let me just ask you where the idea for this came from.
BJH: “Parasite,” the story is about infiltration and like the protagonist, when I was in college I tutored for a very rich family and I got this very strange feeling that I was spying on the private lives of complete strangers, so those memories were my inspiration.
GD: It’s interesting the way that this film explores issues of class. Was that always something that you were fascinated by in exploring cinematically?
BJH: “Parasite” and “Snowpiercer” deal with very similar themes but the original graphic novel that “Snowpiercer” is based on was published in the ‘80s in France, and of course, recently there was “Us” by Jordan Peele and “Shoplifters” by Hirokazu [Kore-eda]. In past decades, there were so many works that dealt with class and I think it’s a very natural duty for creators to reflect the times that they live in and it’s not as if I’m announcing to the world that I’m only gonna deal with class for the rest of my life. It’s just something that revolves around us creators very naturally.
GD: Yeah, certainly art is a reflection of life. To reflect what’s going on in the world at large right now, that is part of your responsibility. What’s really surprising about this movie, and you’ve done this in your other work as well, but in here it’s really amplified, the way that you mix all these different tones. At times it’s really funny, at times it’s violent, at times it’s really sad. Was that a difficult line to tow?
BJH: As you said, in this film there are funny moments, there are scary moments, there are sad moments. It’s a mix of all these delicate human emotions and I don’t really think that they constantly shift throughout the film. I think all these elements actually strengthen each other. I think for me, it would actually be more difficult to maintain a singular tone throughout the entire running time of the film and I think just as humans in our daily lives, our emotions change so much throughout the day. We have a very wide spectrum of various emotions and just in two hours, our emotions can change more than dozens of times, so I think it reflects a very natural aspect of the human condition. It’s not as if I intend to be playful with playing around all these genre conventions.
GD: I would love to hear about your visual approach to the movie. I was particularly interested in the way that you show the discrepancies in class between these two families. Can you talk about that and just about your stylistic approach in general?
BJH: In “Snowpiercer,” it all happens in a horizontal train where the rich are in the front cars and in “Parasite,” it’s a very vertical structure where the rich are on top. It also features a lot of staircases. In the film’s opening scene, the camera pans down to our protagonists and the central rain sequence, it’s also very vertical as water flows from top to the bottom, so the visual strategy of this film was that sense of vertical top to bottom flow.
GD: I wanted to ask you about the cast. In particular about Song Kang-ho. He’s worked with you a lot and I wonder what that relationship between the two of you is like and just about your general approach to working with actors.
BJH: A couple days ago, “The Irishman” premiered at the New York Film Festival and there was incredible responses. Can’t even count how many films [Robert] De Niro and [Martin] Scorsese have done together and I really admire that partnership between the director and actor and with Song, I’ve had the honor of working with him on four films but I still feel like I’ve only managed to discover a small part of the goldmine that is Song Kang-ho. I would love to explore this actor even further, but “Parasite” is an ensemble piece. We have 10 characters who each have their very important role in the story and so, Song understood that really well and really prioritized the chemistry between the family members, so it was a very enjoyable experience where the atmosphere was very family-like.
GD: It’s funny, he really does disappear into this role. It wasn’t until the very end of the movie, which I wouldn’t dare spoil at all that I realized, “Oh, that’s that guy, yeah.”
BJH: He’s a chameleon.
GD: I found it really interesting the way you play with this moral ambiguity with the characters. Without giving too much away, on the one hand, they’re doing things that you at first think are, shall we say, criminal, but you find yourself really rooting for them. Can you talk a bit about that?
BJH: I think what you said is the dangerous charm that this film, story and the actors have. No one’s a criminal originally but they do commit bad things. Nonetheless, as the audience member, you wish for their success. You really just can’t hate them and even with the rich characters as well, they’re not your traditional greedy, malicious, rich characters. There is really no true villain in this film, but even then, the film ends with that explosive, disastrous moment and I think that in itself is the core question of this film. There aren’t any gangsters, criminals or villains in this film, but why does that scary, explosive moment happen in the end?
Be sure to make your Oscar nominee predictions today so that Hollywood insiders can see how their films and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions as often as you like until just before nominees are announced on January 13. And join in the fun debate over the 2020 Academy Awards taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our film forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.