How 'Parasite' Co-Writer Went From Assistant to Oscar Nominee

Parasite Still - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Neon

For his nominated screenplay, director Bong Joon Ho employed a research assistant to look into the lives of everyday people in Seoul — and then turned him into his co-writer.

Nominated for a historic total of six Oscars, South Korean director Bong Joon Ho's Parasite is the big surprise of awards season 2020. The Neon film's unexpected journey from Seoul to Cannes to Oscars favorite has been especially surreal for its 35-year-old co-writer, Han Jin-won, who made his screenwriting debut on the project and now is nominated alongside Bong for best original screenplay.

It was only four years ago that Han landed his first job on a big-budget film production, working as an assistant in the props and transport departments on Bong's sci-fi adventure Okja (2017), produced by Netflix. So how did he get here?

Not long after Okja finished shooting in late 2016, Han had returned to his low-key life and was considering pursuing an MA in fine arts when he received an unexpected call from Bong. The director had a new project he was developing, and he didn't want to lose momentum on it while tied up with international promotional duties for Okja. Bong asked Han if he would be interested in doing some background research for this smaller-budget, entirely Korean-language film he was beginning to envision — the project that would eventually become Parasite

In North America, much of the mainstream moviegoing public is just beginning to grapple with Bong's formidable talent, thanks to Parasite. But at home in South Korea, he has long been a towering figure — arguably the country's most famous filmmaker. Han says he didn't hesitate for a second to accept Bong's offer, but he also didn't fully realize what he was getting himself into.

"Bong made it seem like it would be a light, easy project, just a couple hours of research a day while he finished up on Okja," Han recalls. "In a good way, he sort of fooled me," he adds. "Once I got started, I was basically working on it every moment that I wasn't sleeping." 

On a recent afternoon in Seoul, THR sat down with Han to discuss how a freelance research gig morphed into an Oscar-nominated screenwriting credit, what makes Bong special as a collaborator and the long night he spent drinking with a Korean gangster while exploring an alternate ending to Parasite

Parasite is a very self-contained film, with most of the film taking place in just two homes. What kind of research went into it?

So director Bong showed me his treatment and we had some conversations, and then he sent me off to investigate various things. My first assignment was basically doing research on the possible occupations that these characters would have, like exploring the lives of domestic workers, tutors and drivers here in Seoul. I also met with young people who were in similar situations to the protagonists of the poor family in the film — struggling young people trying to figure out how to get by. A lot of it was meeting with people and just discussing how they were living their lives. I did many interviews and recorded everything. Sometimes he would ask me to explore different upper-class or working-class areas of Seoul, and I would take photos, collect details and note my impressions.

How would you and Bong then process the material?

We would meet near his house or at a coffee shop in the city. I would report on what I had found, telling him my thoughts, playing him clips of things and showing him my photos. It always turned into a very long conversation. Often we would fixate on a certain image, and then that would spawn into a whole new assignment. Basically, I was researching details of our current times. What was really enjoyable about it was that I wasn't just sitting in front of my laptop doing research. I was able to go out and visit various neighborhoods, meet a lot of people from all walks of life.

What are some of the things you learned while researching that can be found in the finished film?

There are so many details, but director Bong reworked much of what I wrote to fit his personal style. One part that remains unchanged is the conversation in the car when Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) impresses Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) with his eloquent speech about the vocation of the driver. I wrote all of that right after I did an interview with an actual driver. It basically contains the exact things that he said to me. It reflects the pride that he had as someone who has worked professionally in their job for many decades. Usually with those interviews, I would always buy the person a meal, but this driver actually insisted on buying me dinner. He was very proud of his profession. Later, he gave me a ride home — and he was a very skilled driver. A lot of that experience — his dignity, I suppose — stuck with me. When we were filming that car scene many months later, director Bong patted me on the back and said, "This all came together thanks to your research." [Bong] works harder than anyone on his films, but he's very generous with his collaborators.

How did you end up actually co-writing the script?

Well, during months of research, and through our conversations, I started to understand the direction Bong wanted to go with the story. At the end of 2016, he asked me if I had a writing sample, and I showed him a prose piece that I had written before. Then he suggested that I actually try writing my own version of the script. He said, "Don't worry about the length, just write whatever you want." I ended up doing three versions, and between each version we would meet to discuss them, and then I would go away and make adjustments. Everything I was doing, I later realized, was about creating a giant library of ideas and details that director Bong could draw from when he sat down to write his own version.

Did you have any interesting encounters while researching that didn't make it into the project, for whatever reason?

Yes, quite a few. While I was writing my early versions of the script, there were some different ideas for the ending. In one, the Kim family sort of smuggles themselves out of Korea and manages to run away. Director Bong was intrigued by that, so he told me to try to research how it could actually be done. After lots of random inquiries, I eventually got introduced to this old gangster — an actual gangster who apparently was very influential in several old areas of Seoul some time ago. So I met up with him one night, and he proceeded to tell me all about all of these illegal things he had done over the years, including strategies on how you could smuggle people in or out of the country. We drank for hours, but he never seemed to get drunk. Obviously, this didn't make it into the film, but it was memorable. 

What were your impressions when you saw Bong's finished script?

I still remember when I first received it. When I looked at the cover and saw that he had included my name as a co-writer, my hands were shaking as I picked it up. I couldn't read it on the spot; I had to go hide in my favorite coffee shop and take my time. Director Bong texted me asking what I thought, and I told him that I felt like I was reading Kaftka's Metamorphosis for the first time. That was the feeling I had. I was wowed by it. The entire second half — after the big twist — was all new in his version. And he wrote that final version in such a short amount of time. After reading his version, I realized how ordinary the ones I had written were. I felt that Bong is a very exceptional, very different, kind of person. And I was so grateful to be included. 

/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.