To meet Bong Joon Ho is to encounter an instant disconnect. The 50-year-old is a master of manic, metaphorical storytelling and now the director of Parasite, one of the most successful Korean films in history. Yet in person his posture is relaxed and his clothes seem timeless: all muted colours and loose lines that emanate cosiness. Minutes into our interview, he untwirls a boiled sweet that he’d stored in his pocket and pops it in his mouth.
“I was ridiculous,” he self-deprecates, when asked what his younger self was like. How is this the man behind a film widely hailed as one of the most searing and emotionally fraught in recent years?
The surprises don’t stop here. Parasite is handsomely crafted and superbly cast, but nobody expected the gargantuan hit it would become. It was unanimously voted the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2019, making him the first Korean director to scoop the top prize. Following its US release in October, it made more money per theatre than any foreign-language movie in the country’s history. Former US President Barack Obama called it one of his films of the year.
A large contribution to the film’s success, it seems, is a love for Bong himself – not a cinephile’s appreciation, but straight-up fandom (a simple search of the hashtag #bonghive is enough to discover almost popstar levels of adoration).
Our short time together in a cavernous basement venue in central London proves exactly what the fuss is about and it’s near impossible not to gravitate towards him. This is a man who loves David Bowie, but also keenly recommends the song Drink I’m Sippin On by Korean-American electronic artist Yaeji. (“The music video is on YouTube, you should watch it, it’s great,” he says leaning forward enthusiastically.)
As a teenager he adored films, from Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a love that only seems to be rivalled by one thing: “I think about food all day,” he says dreamily. “Even on set, with my cinematographer – we’re supposed to be talking about scenes, but instead we’re talking about what catering is serving as a late night snack. We always maintain a very sensitive watch over the catering menu, and nitpick it wherever we can. Other crew members probably think that we’re talking about camera angles because we look so serious.”
Food is integral to Parasite; a peach becomes a weapon, a dish of udon topped with sirloin steak illustrates luxury, and beer is used as a sign of social ascent. “The Korean audience will understand immediately, but the type of beer that the family drinks changes gradually as they become employed,” Bong says. “I think that food really reflects our daily life but also our class.”
The family in question are the Kims, an impoverished nuclear unit that lives in a piss-speckled basement flat, stealing Wi-Fi and taking menial jobs where they can. A favour from the son’s friend lands him a job tutoring for the wealthy yet clueless Parks family at their modern and meticulous trophy house (Bong collaborated with production designer Lee Ha Jun to create the building from scratch). Through collective moxie and a decent amount of lying, the Kims infiltrate the home as hired help.
“It’s all about the houses,” says Bong, who drew on his own experiences as a young tutor in Seoul for the story. Parasite is indeed a deep unthreading of pride and humanity in the face of capitalism – though kitchen sink drama it certainly isn’t.
Bong’s interpretation of class wars have taken many forms over his career: a segregated train-turned-battleground in Snowpiercer; a street vendor and his family take on a giant slimy monster in The Host, wreaking havoc on Seoul and further widening the poverty line in doing so.
For Parasite, Bong called back his frequent collaborator and go-to underdog Song Kang-ho (Snowpiercer, Park Chan-wook’s Thirst) to bring his well-worn charms and stoicism to the Kim’s patriarch. “I didn’t tell him the story in detail, just that he would play the father of this poor family,” Bong says.
“Even before I began writing the script, I knew that Song Kang-ho and Lee Sun Kyun – who plays his son – would be in the film. I began to write the script with them in mind, so there’s a specific face, physicality, and a way of talking and gesturing to these characters that I invented.”
The film’s secret weapon, however, comes in the form of Park So-dam, playing the straight-talking, intimidatingly cool younger sister and mastermind of the Kims’ operation. Bong lightly taps the table with joy when describing his star-on-the-rise.
“I actually met Park So-Dam for Okja while searching for someone to play the little girl,” he recalls. “She was a little too old, but I was always fascinated by her performances.”
Bong confirms that the actress and her onscreen persona are similar: “She’s super smart, incredibly witty and very sensible,” he smiles. “For the character, she has that sense of charisma about her where she can easily overpower the other person.”
Bong’s films are imbued with sad, inevitable cruelty, but never at the expense of comedy. Parasite is no exception.
“When I create stories I don’t intentionally think about inserting certain elements into them, such as comedy or horror,” he says. “I always try to show realistic situations, because I think, in reality, you’re not always intending to make someone laugh. Sometimes it’s just the situations and the way that they unfold that are funny in themselves. I want the humour of my films to just flow out of the story naturally.”
Parasite is released 7th February in the UK.