Bong Joon Ho's film about class inequality and an opportunistic family is the first South Korean film to win the Academy's top prize.
Parasite made history not only with this year's Oscar nominations, but with its wins for both best international feature film and best picture, making it the first film in cinema history to prevail in both categories and the first foreign-language film to be named best picture.
Bong Joon Ho's pic about class inequality and an opportunistic family was the first South Korean film ever to be nominated for best picture. It also won best original screenplay and director honors (as well as the Film Independent Spirit Award for best international feature the day before the Oscars).
The story follows Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), who lives in a basement-level apartment with his parents and younger sister. They struggle to make ends meet and do odd jobs to survive. When his friend offers him a position to become a tutor for a wealthy family known as the Kims, he sees an opportunity to employ the rest of his family. However, their plans of infiltrating the Kims' lives are interrupted by an unexpected incident that causes turmoil for both families.
From the making of the sets to a future HBO series, here are 10 things to know about the creation and behind-the-scenes goings-on of Parasite.
In his early 20s, Bong was a math tutor to a son of an affluent family in Seoul. He was introduced to them through his girlfriend, now wife, who was already working for them as an English tutor. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the filmmaker said that although he was really bad at math, he was hired because these types of jobs rely on referrals.
This is how each member of the Kims are able to work in the Park household. It begins when Kim Ki-woo lies to the Kims' matriarch about having a friend who can be an art tutor for her youngest child. This "friend" is actually his younger sister. One by one, the Parks each get a position in the house and take advantage of their spacious home whenever they're not around.
"This idea of a poor family infiltrating the lives of a rich one is where I first delved in," said Bong. "It was more like putting these characters together in a very controlled environment and then watching the chemical reactions unfold."
In 2013, Bong was in the middle of finishing his sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer. Afterward, he wrote a 15-page treatment for the first half of Parasite. He then struck a deal with Korean studios Barunson E&A and CJ Entertainment with a budget of $12 million. Before beginning work on Okja, he asked his Snowpiercer production assistant Han Jin Won to conduct research for the second half.
"Bong made it seem like it would be a light and easy project, just a couple hours of research a day while he worked on Okja," Han said. "In a good way, he sort of fooled me. Once I got started, I was basically working on it every moment that I wasn't sleeping."
It wasn't until after Okja was released that Bong continued to work on the script.
A majority of the film takes place in two settings: the houses of the Kims and the Parks. The stark contrast between the two illustrates the differences in their lifestyles.
"Although this film doesn't have a lot of sets, I understood that these houses would be very important to its symbolic language, because 80 percent of the story happens inside them," production designer Lee Ha-jun said.
He used parallel front-facing windows for each house because he believed that even though each family looks out the same window, they see different things.
"The characters in the poor house have no privacy," Bong explained. "They're completely exposed to the street — sometimes fumigation gas or floodwater might flow in, and there's a drunk guy who regularly urinates right outside their window."
Bong described the process of making Parasite as looking at the story and characters under a microscope which is why everything especially the houses were very detailed. The Parks' elaborately designed house was built on a vacant lot in Jeonju, while the Kims' basement-level apartment and neighborhood were built inside a large water tank.
In the film, Choi plays Song's son. While shooting, he said, he was so nervous that he couldn't look Song in the eye.
"For every kid in Korea who wants to be an actor, the idea of working with Song Kang-ho is like a dream," he said. "The whole cast was kind of depending on him."
The respected actor has starred in numerous South Korean films for other acclaimed directors. His breakout role in a drama was in Joint Security Area playing a North Korean soldier.
"Indeed, the acting format [in Parasite] is that of an ensemble, where almost 10 main characters work with each other in even balance." Bong said. "Despite this, as can be seen when we look back on the film's climax sequence, it's Song Kang-ho whose bearing the core sentiment of the film as well as its riskiest moments, the most daring parts."
Previously, they've worked on Memories of Murder, The Host and Snowpiercer together. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Bong said the acclaimed actor has the ability to be persuasive and relatable to an audience. He found that he could confidently include unique scenes and lines because he could rely on him to play them well.
"The script of Parasite, especially, has bold, unexpected, or somewhat controversial moments in its latter part," Bong said. "But having Song Kang-ho in mind resolved the fears and concerns that I had writing them."
Over the years of working together, they've developed a strong friendship. Song said that because they began their careers at the same time, they both went through turbulent journeys together. His role in Parasite is different from his previous collaborations with Bong because he isn't exactly the main character. Song describes his character, Kim Ki-taek, as "invertebrate."
"I see this guy as representing the middle-aged Korean man whose life just hasn't worked out the way he wanted, but he still has to somehow adapt and find a way to live," said the actor.
Han was Bong's production assistant on Snowpiercer before being asked to conduct research into the daily lives of various South Koreans. For months, Han interviewed housekeepers, tutors and chauffeurs. He also explored both wealthy and poor neighborhoods in Seoul. For example, Han included the exact conversation he had with a driver in the scene where Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) speaks to Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) about his job as a chauffeur.
After presenting his research to Bong, the director asked Han to write a screenplay out of it. He ended up writing three different versions based on Bong's feedback. The filmmaker drew from these ideas to utilize in his own script and included Han as a co-writer.
"My hands were shaking when I picked it up," Han says. "I couldn't read it on the spot; I had to go hide in my favorite coffee shop and take my time." It is Han's first screenplay.
Parasite had the highest per-screen average for a foreign-language release in the U.S. The film made $70 million at the box office in South Korea and $12 million in France. Bong said that because the plot was unusual, he was only hoping to make his money back. The pic also received numerous accolades at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the BAFTAs, to name a few. He believes that the reason why Parasite resonated with a large audience was because everyone can relate to the movie's exploration of capitalism.
"The film talks about two opposing families, about the rich versus the poor, and that is a universal theme, because we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism," Bong said.
During awards season, Bong has gone viral for his sense of humor and speeches. Kwak says that on set the filmmaker created a fun and light atmosphere despite the film's dark themes.
"He's very detailed and very fast with his decisions," she said. "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."
The stone was given to Ki-woo by his friend Min and supposedly symbolized good fortune. In Korea, they're called scholar stones because they were often seen on the writing tables of Confucian scholars. When Bong was younger, he and his father went on walks to find them. According to Bong, this practice is no longer common, so presenting it in the film was a "deliberately strange choice."
On set, he refused to share the stone's meaning with the cast. Choi believed that it represented his character's burden of helping his family and the desire for them to gain wealth by any means necessary. By the end of the pic, it's clear that its presence doesn't help bring them material wealth like they thought it would.
"Essentially, I think it represents this desire in the heart of Ki-woo not to give up on the idea that he can become the kind of guy who can find a way to give his family a better life," Song said. "All it ends up doing for Ki-woo is bashing his skull in."
Bong will work alongside Adam McKay, who is known for his directing and producing on Succession. Due to the project being in early development, not much is known.
"With cinema, you're limited to a two-hour running time. But there were so many stories that I thought of that could happen in between the sequences you see in the film, and some background stories for each character," said the director. "So, with the TV series for Parasite, I think we'll be able to create a high-quality, expanded film."