Bong Joon-ho on Making First Full Korean Film in 10 Years With 'Parasite'

Cannes
"I believe a director’s job is to reflect the times he or she lives in," says Bong, pictured here on the set of 'Parasite.'

The Korean auteur, back in Cannes for the sixth time, discusses turning the issue of income inequality into a thriller with his competition entry, the need for Netflix and the film world to "learn to co-exist" and why he considers himself a "journeyman director."

Two years after creating a stir on the Croisette with his sci-fi adventure Okja — controversially backed by Netflix — South Korean genre master Bong Joon-ho is back in competition at Cannes with the family tragicomedy Parasite. It’s his first fully Korean film in 10 years, following Okja and his English-language breakthrough Snowpiercer in 2012. This time, Bong zeros in on two traditional Korean families — one poor, the other rich — probing the problem of income inequality via his signature blend of genre thrills and off-kilter surprises. The film also reunites Bong with Korean star Song Kang-ho, with whom he has made four features (Memories of Murder, The Host and Snowpiercer), forging one of the great director-actor partnerships of contemporary world cinema.

Produced and sold by South Korea's CJ Entertainment, the film was picked up by Neon for North American distribution in one of the biggest deals at the American Film Market last October.  

Bong, 49, whose talent Quentin Tarantino once described as "like Spielberg in his prime," spoke with THR about the Netflix imbroglio that engulfed his last trip to Cannes, the French fine art technique that inspired Parasite’s structure and a fortuitous encounter with Tilda Swinton on the Croisette.

Not too much is known about Parasite. Can you share a little more about the film’s premise and where its inspiration came from?

It’s about two families. Each family has four family members. One family is rich and the other is poor. I was inspired by this artist concept, or form of fine art, called the decalcomania, which came from the décalcomanie in French. In English, it’s known these days as decal. In Korea, we learn about this at school. Décalcomanie means you create one image with ink or something on paper, and then you fold the paper, so that image is reflected on the other side. That concept inspired me. The initial title of the film was actually The Décalcomanie. When you look at the final results of a decalcomania or decal, both sides look identical at a first glance. But if you look at it more closely, they’re not exactly the same. This kind of explains something about these two families. They look similar and maybe even identical, but they’re not.

You mentioned that one difference is that one family is rich and the other is poor. Growing income inequality, of course, is one of the great problems that defines our times. Did you intended to address this issue by structuring the film this way?

Yes, that’s right. This conflict between classes — or I guess we can call it the polarization of the rich and the poor — it’s a worldwide issue and something that’s also happening in Korea. I believe a director’s job is to try to reflect the time that he or she lives in. In the film, the son of the poor family finds a job as a private tutor for the rich family. So he starts [spending time] with them and something weird starts happening. In reality, there are very few opportunities for the rich and for the poor to mix nowadays, because they travel in different channels. They don’t mingle. But if you are poor and become a tutor in the home of a rich family, then you have this unique opportunity to see both worlds. It was a great starting point. The film deals with this income inequality issue, but it’s also a crime thriller and a black comedy. It’s a genre film, so I’d say that you will find a lot of fun, cinematic stuff in the film too.

How did the production process of Parasite compare to some of your previous films?

The filmmaking process of Parasite was more focused — like you are looking at these incidents and people in the story with a microscope. You’re looking at them very, very closely. Everything was very elaborate, very finely tuned. About 80 to 90 percent of the film happens in these two houses, one of the rich family, the other of the poor family. So, it’s very detailed, and it was fun for me to design these houses, too. In a nutshell, I would say Parasite is a film about looking through a microscope at the family, and then the biologist disturbs the cells on the slide while you are looking at them.

You are frequently described as a master genre filmmaker, but you rarely play it straight. You have a unique gift for blending genres in unpredictable ways, creating black comedy and sudden shifts in mood. 

Genre films are like the air and the blood for me. It’s like I breathe the air of genre films, take them inside of me so that they are flowing in my veins. I grew up watching 1970s American cinema, so it feels very natural to me.

Parasite is your fourth film starring the singular South Korean actor Song Kang-ho. What is it about Song that inspires you to keep placing him at the center of your films?

Song Kang-ho is a very big figure to me. To have him in mind when I write a scene, I can write it with more boldness and uniqueness, because he has this amazing human capacity to be persuasive and relatable to the audience. He gives me the confidence to say what I want to say in a more odd or striking way, because I know he will give it so much confidence. For the Korean audience, Song Kang-ho is one of the greats — like a mixture of Al Pacino, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Shannon.

Your previous two films, Snowpiercer and Okjatook you in a somewhat more Hollywood direction, with English dialogue, bigger budgets and some Western movie stars. Was there a reason you decided to return to Korean-language filmmaking on a smaller budget with Parasite?

It actually wasn’t really designed that way. The story was already developing in my mind in 2013, before Snowpiercer. I would say that I have been very lucky as a foreign director in how I got to make those two blockbusters, Snowpiercer and Okja. Usually when a foreign director goes to Hollywood, they are given all kinds of restrictions — you don’t have the right to the final edit or your studio is quite controlling. But I was given full control. So I never had the feeling of, "Oh, I’m so tired of making English-language films; it’s time for me to go back to making Korean films where I can have more freedom." I’m just a journeyman film director who wants to keep making the films he wants to see. That’s what I do.

When you were last in Cannes in 2017, Okja became embroiled in the controversy over Netflix-produced films participating in the festival. Now that you’re back in competition and have some distance from that controversy, has your perspective on it evolved?

If I am given another opportunity to work with Netflix, or to do a traditional Korean studio movie, either will be fine with me. Parasite happens to be produced by CJ Entertainment. I think other creators are the same way. We all welcome some sort of opportunity. I understand that there are these conflicts going on, over whether a film is shown at a theater or streamed online. But I think we should learn to co-exist. That’s what I wish for. I would welcome any opportunity to work with Netflix, Amazon, Apple or a traditional studio, as long as I’m granted creative freedom. 

You have written or co-written every one of the films that you’ve directed. What’s your writing process like?

I’m a rather slow writer and I have to go to a coffee shop. I turn my back to the crowd in the cafe, so that everyone’s chatting and the noise of the place rises behind me, and then I just keep my head down and churn out my screenplay. I can’t write at home, because I get too lazy. I’ll just want to watch TV or fall asleep. But I’m not allowed to lie down and fall asleep in the cafe, right? So it kind of forces me to work. I understand I’m not the only one who can’t work at home. I talked to J.J. Abrams, and he said he writes while he walks around town.

No South Korean film has ever won the Palme d’Or or ever been nominated for an Oscar. That’s a pretty baffling fact, considering how much original, unforgettable cinema the country has produced over recent decades. Why do you think this is?

Well, I have served on the juries for the Berlin Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival. So I have seen this award-giving process up close. When I think back on these experiences, I see that the process is quite complicated and unpredictable and that you have to be really lucky to win. So I think it’s just a matter of time before a Korean film will be awarded either a Palme d’Or or an Oscar. Song Kang-ho and I are [both members of the Academy] now, so we get to participate in that process. Also, did you know that Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar for best director? So maybe this process is a bit … vague.

You’re a regular at this festival — part of the Cannes family, as Thierry Frémaux would say. Do you have any special memories here?

This will be my sixth outing to Cannes, so I have a lot of great memories. But if I were to pick just one, it would be back in 2011 when I bumped into Tilda Swinton. We ended up having dinner together, and that was a really fun and meaningful experience. It turned out that we had been each other’s fans. She liked The Host, and I’d loved so many of her films. After that meeting, we decided to try to work together and ended up doing Snowpiercer. So that one sticks out in my mind as one of those special Cannes moments.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 16 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.