After winning the top prize at Cannes, earning widespread acclaim and exceeding box office expectations, Bong Joon Ho's film is the first Korean feature to compete at the Academy Awards.
Producer Kwak Sin-ae has known Bong Joon Ho since the late 1990s, when she was an eager young film journalist covering South Korean cinema and he was a promising young director making short films. Now Kwak, 51, has produced Bong's rapturously received Parasite, which collected six Oscar nominations — including best picture, best director and best international feature — and became the first South Korean film to garner that recognition from the Academy.
Part thriller, part black comedy, part social satire, Parasite has transcended boundaries of genre and nationality, grossing more than $137 million worldwide since it unspooled at the Cannes Film Festival in May, more than $25 million of that from typically subtitle-averse domestic audiences. Kwak spoke to THR about the challenges of marketing the indefinable film, the disappointment in seeing its actors go unrecognized amid the thrill of the other Oscar nominations and what she hopes the honor means for the future of the Korean film industry.
What does it mean to you that Parasite is the first South Korean film to get an Oscar nomination?
A lot of people watch the Oscars there, and there are a lot of fans of cinema, including myself. Ever since I was young, I would see Oscar trophies on posters of films that won them. I always had the fantasy of something like this happening, but it was never a realistic dream. To see it happen in reality, it's very surprising. It all feels a little bit bizarre as well.
In the past few years, the Academy has been trying to become a more international organization, to invite more members from outside the United States and to be less centered on Hollywood films. Do you think there's a need for an organization of that type?
Just based on pure facts, regardless of value judgment, in reality it's true that the Oscars have been an event that really represents American cinema and Hollywood. It's true that films that receive a lot of recognition from the Academy gain a lot of influence in the overall film industry. I have a very positive view of the Academy's effort to become more international. Thanks to Parasite being included in this year's lineup, now people are paying more attention to Korean cinema, and that makes me very happy.
Had you worked with Bong Joon Ho before Parasite? How did you come to be involved in this film?
It's my first time working with him. My company was the production company for his 2009 film, Mother, and we had known each other ever since I was in my late 20s. When director Bong was making his short film [Incoherence], I was a writer on a film magazine called Kino; in our magazine, we [covered] director Bong's short film. Director Bong said that he was a big fan of our magazine, and that's how we came to know each other.
Director Bong has brought a welcome sense of humor to this whole process of awards season. What's his personality like when he's in production and shooting?
He's actually very funny even on set. He's very detailed and very fast with his decisions. The humor you see from him during this awards season, he's the exact same way on set and in normal life. Everyone in the Korean film industry is aware of director Bong's personality. Of course, people want to work with him because he creates great films. Also, they just want to experience a set that's very fun.
What were your key challenges as a producer on this film?
We actually didn't have a lot of difficulties in terms of the production. What was more difficult was promoting the film and sharing the story with the public because the genre of Parasite is not easy to define, and we could really only share the first half of the story. Determining how to approach the audience was a challenge for Parasite.
It's unusual for a movie with subtitles to perform so well with American audiences. Why do you think Parasite has been able to overcome what has traditionally been a barrier for non-English films here?
I think the reason is pretty simple: It's the quality of the film. The film itself is really gripping. It's unpredictable. The performances are great. In terms of all the major elements that comprise a film, all of it was well done and very captivating. I think people talk about that, so through word-of-mouth the film just reached more and more people.
Parasite earned six Oscar nominations, but the actors weren't nominated. Why do you think that is?
I'm not sure. I heard about the voting system and the result is an accumulation of every individual's decision. It's difficult for me to really think about what was going on in their minds. We really did hope for a nomination. Song Kang-ho is the greatest actor in Korea. He also has a pretty substantial fan base in the international community. We had hoped that he would get nominated along with the film. It was a disappointment, but I'm not really sure why [it happened this way]. Perhaps one of the reasons is that he wasn't as familiar to the voters in the Academy.
Some people have speculated that it might reflect a bias, that some voters haven't taken time to get to know Asian actors like they have other groups.
It would be a stretch for me to ask why all those individuals made the decisions and for which reasons.
Song Kang-ho looked pretty happy in that video online of him holding a coffee cup and celebrating when you all got the news that Parasite was nominated for best picture.
He was definitely overjoyed with the nominations. He is a leader of the actors. Regardless of which nominations he received, personally he was very happy that the film that we all cherished so much is doing so well at the Academy. He was very happy.
What has awards season been like for you? Have you been attending many events? Have you met any interesting people?
It's my first time going through an awards season, so it's all very surprising. It feels very new because the cultures are very different. Like director Bong says, in Korea when we meet other people, we're always sitting down around a table. Here in the States, we all have to stand up for a very long time and mingle in parties. I met so many people, so many directors and actors in films that I've watched and admired.
Have you learned anything new about your cast or director Bong while going through the season? It's a lot of time you've all spent together starting from Cannes until now.
I already knew that they had a lot of passion, a lot of focus, especially with director Bong and Song Kang-ho, but it's been great to see how well they're doing in the process. I know that the reason why they're going through all of this is because they know that the success of the campaign will influence the Korean film industry and bring a lot of support and interest to Korean cinema.
What are some of the other countries where Parasite has found an audience?
The film did incredibly well in France, Vietnam and Germany, but overall the film has done well in every country where it was released. The fact that a Korean film has never been nominated for an Oscar, when I first came here I felt very distant from this whole scene. Now thanks to our film, I feel like that gap has closed a bit more. I feel hopeful and like there is so much potential to communicate with the international audience. I'm very excited and happy for that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.