Telluride Diary: Bong Joon Ho's 'Parasite' and the Academy's Next Barrier

Bong Joon Ho — Getty — H 2019
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The darkly comic parable, in Korean, will be a test of domestic audiences' — and voters' — willingness to read subtitles, but the director says he believes the story revolving around "the gap between rich and poor is very universal."

Only one Asian director — Ang Lee — has ever earned a best picture nomination. It’s a remarkable omission for the vast, cinema-steeped continent that has produced filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Wong Kar-Wai, Hayao Miyazaki, Park Chan-Wook and on and on and on.

That lonely number may grow this year, because of the genial man resting under the shade of a pine tree at a picnic table on Telluride’s main drag, having just made a 27-hour journey from Seoul to this remote box canyon in the Rockies.

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, 49, is in Telluride for the North American premiere of his movie Parasite, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, grossed more than $90 million internationally since it started rolling out over the summer and opens in North America on Oct. 11, courtesy of Neon.

American audiences know Bong best for his genre-defying English-language films, Okja and Snowpiercer. Parasite is in Korean, and the darkly comic parable about class will be a test of domestic audiences’ — and Academy voters’ — willingness to read subtitles.

“I did hear that in North America the market for subtitled films, not just Korean films, is quite limited,” Bong says. “But I'm hoping that improves. As you follow the story, I think this issue of the gap between rich and poor is very universal and something that a lot of people can sympathize with.”

Bong is wryly funny and warm, with a mop of messy black hair and a tattoo on his forearm with his wife and son’s names. “I'm actually a very boring and idiotic person,” he says, speaking with the help of a translator, as a small white dog — apparently one of Telluride’s canine cinephiles — starts nuzzling him under the table.

Neon plans to give Parasite a platform release, expanding slowly over the course of awards season, and to campaign the film not just in the Academy’s newly renamed international film category (formerly foreign-language), but also in picture, director, original screenplay and actor, for its star and frequent Bong collaborator, Song Kang-Ho. There is recent precedent for a foreign-language film breaking through in the main categories, in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which collected 10 Oscar nominations last year, including best picture.

“Bong has been making movies for a very, very long time and he's been making movies that have transcended beyond the country of origin,” says Neon founder Tom Quinn. “Having worked with Chris Evans, with Tilda Swinton, there's a lot of excitement beyond the shores of Korea. But the final piece is being able to push through the boundaries of subtitles and finding audiences that don't see a lot of foreign-language films.”

Bong’s history of making slyly sophisticated, crowd-pleasing genre films has found him a devoted base of fans — the self-described Bong Hive — across not just nationalities but ages. It seems safe to say that he will be the only director this fall premiering his movie both for the genteel, cinephile audiences in Telluride and for the raucous fanboys and fangirls who will attend Fantastic Fest in Austin in September.

As Hollywood has become increasingly dependent on franchise films, Bong has enjoyed a rare career built upon his own original scripts. Parasite, which currently has a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is inspired by movies such as Joseph Losey’s 1963 British drama The Servant and Korean director Kim Ki-young’s 1960 crime thriller, The Housemaid. Bong says he keeps his budgets low by Hollywood standards, like Parasite’s $11 million, in order to maintain his creative independence.

“In Korea, we still have a lot of projects where the original idea comes from the director or writer,” Bong says. “Compared to the U.S. market, there are fewer remakes or franchise sequel films. I have two projects on the works, but neither of them are big-budget films. There's one in Korean and one in English, but they're on the scale of Parasite, and both of them are both original ideas, and not an adaptation of anything else.”

Though the filmmaker is happy for the time being working on a more intimate scale, Hollywood’s most deep-pocketed companies are interested in being in the Bong business. Later in the afternoon, as the filmmaker makes his way through a crowded Academy party held above an art gallery in town, Lucasfilm president Kathy Kennedy and Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, who released the $57 million budgeted Okja, huddle up to pay their respects.

Bong is keen to the ironies of promoting a movie about class difference at a film festival, pointing out that even festival passes are tiered in a kind of caste system. “If we’re really sensitive to our surroundings, class is an issue that we encounter every day in our lives,” Bong says. “The people we pass by, we wonder, ‘Oh are they rich, are they middle class, are they poor?’ And we wonder about class through many different methods in our daily lives, we just don't really talk about it in the open out of politeness.”

Under the pine tree, Bong is eventually joined by his Parasite leading man and collaborator of 20 years, Song, who teases his director about how he’s changed since they first met. “Before, he was very slender,” Song says, with a wink. In 2015, as part of the Academy’s push toward internationalization, both men were invited to join the organization and they say they take the honor of voting seriously. “This year?” Song says. “I’m going to vote for Parasite for everything this year.”