Bong Joon-ho Talks True Crime, Steve Buscemi, Unlikely Success of 'Parasite'

Bong Joon-ho arrives at Neon Presents Los Angeles Premiere of 'Parasite' - Getty-H 2019
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This year's Palme d'Or winner gave a master class at Cannes topper Thierry Frémaux’s 10th annual Lumière Festival in Lyon, saying: "We all live in the same country now: that of capitalism."

Visibly jet-lagged after a monthlong tour promoting his latest feature, Parasite, which was released in the U.S. last Friday, Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho was on hand at the Lumière Festival in Lyon for a lengthy public talk revisiting his best movies.

Introduced on stage by Cannes topper Thierry Frémaux, whose jury handed Bong his first Palme d’Or in May, and interviewed by French filmmaker and critic Bertrand Tavernier, the 50-year-old director spoke rather timidly about his approach to directing, his unruly narrative methods and his unfettered love of animals — including a dog waiting for him back home in Seoul. (He proudly showed off a photo.)

Tavernier spent a good part of the class revisiting Bong’s second feature, Memories of Murder (2003), an enthralling serial killer story set in the 1980s that put the Korean auteur on the map. Recent news that the murderer who inspired the film was finally identified after a 30-year hunt caused the director to be “very troubled,” he said.

When asked if he would like to go back and change the ending now, or at least add a title card explaining what happened, Bong replied: “I want to keep the film as it is. But perhaps viewers will now see the final scene differently, because it won’t just be about failure. And maybe they’ll see the whole movie more as a record of its time, because I was really trying to make a dark — a very dark — comedy about the epoch.”

Bong followed up Memories of Murder with The Host, a sci-fi flick both intimate and epic about a family trying to survive a monster attack on the shores of Seoul’s Han River.

“I was inspired by different disasters that happened in Korea in the 1990s, including a fire in the subway that killed several people. I wanted to show how powerless the victims are, especially when they don’t have the resources needed to survive.”

Amusingly, Bong noted that the computer-generated monster in The Host was meant to be “a little like a sad adolescent, or more precisely like a sad young Steve Buscemi. We actually had a picture of Buscemi in the production office,” he said with a laugh. “We wanted viewers to really feel bad for the creature. Because there’s a certain charm exuded by monsters that lures us in — otherwise they wouldn’t be monsters.”

Tavernier also asked Bong about the constantly shifting tones of his narratives, which often jump back and forth between comedy to drama. The director remarked that his movies are just a reflection of his own personality: “I have a changing temperament that flies in all directions. It would be hard for me to maintain the same tone in a film for two hours.”

The discussion eventually moved to Parasite, which Neon began to roll out last week in the U.S. The film has already grossed close to $400,000 in three theaters, scoring the highest ever per-screen average for a foreign-language release. In South Korea, the $11 million-budget movie made $70 million at the box office, while in France it made another $12 million, making it one of the most profitable Palme d’Or winners in recent memory.

Bong admitted that he’s been surprised by all the success. “When we shot the film, we just hoped to make our money back because the story was so weird,” he said.

When asked to explain why Parasite is such a hit, he didn’t have any ready answers and turned the question back to Tavernier and co-host Didier Allouche. The former said that any big hit is always a mystery, while the latter said the film was too good not to be a hit.

But Bong then offered up his own interpretation of his movie’s global success: “When I made Parasite, it was like trying to witness our world through a microscope. 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.”