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Pop Stuff: ‘Parasite:’ How Director Bong Joon-ho Became a Household Name

If Bong Joon-ho’s work has a through-line, it is that at its core he is keenly and consistently attuned the power to provoke a kind of self-reckoning

Soleil Nathwani Dec 23, 2019

Bong Joon-ho, director of 'The Host.' Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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South Korean director Bong Joon-ho has made seven feature films in a career that sees him at the vanguard of an explosion of talent in Korean cinema. His last, Parasite, ostensibly a tale of two families of opposing fortunes has garnered universal appeal beyond any of his prior work or that of his contemporaries. Receiving rapturous reviews, filling art house and commercial cinemas and resonating from East to West, Parasite is touted as the film of the year, or indeed of this decade as we look to the next. Director Bong’s work is bitter-sweet and ugly-beautiful, leaving the audience relieved when the credits roll, yet desperately anticipating his next. He toys with us, drawing us in with laughs and thrills only to leave us in a state of reflective despair. Bong’s films explore the banal, glorious and horrific ways humans sin against each other, against their better natures and against their planet. With Parasite it all coalesces. It’s quintessential Bong at his best, unleashing his worst trick yet on the audience.

Bong Joon-ho’s oeuvre was born within the electric climate of South Korean cinema of recent decades. After a brief golden period in the 1950s following the end of the Korean War, the film industry sputtered as a military coup spawned widespread censorship. All this changed in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, following the overthrow of military rule. Filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, Lee Chang-dong and Hong San-soo amongst others, breathed new life into the movies. Aware that freedom was a hard-won thing, these artists pushed boundaries; on the one hand, buoyed by the springboard of liberation and on the other vigilantly testing the limits, tight-rope style. The storytelling that was the result of working on the razor-sharp edge of what was conceivable is by turns bold, brash, sexually perverse, hyper-violent, rip-roaringly comedic, audaciously intimate and above all mesmerizing. The homegrown blockbusters of New Korean Cinema are unique in their mind-bending approach to genre and gleeful inventiveness all coated in a sociopolitical edge. An edge that Bong has grown masterful in sculpting.

Bong Joon-ho’s early work contains the hallmarks of what has become his style. Memories of Murder, Bong’s second feature in 2003 (following his first, Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000) established him as a singular and provocative voice. The film is a detective caper inspired by the hunt for the then still on the loose perpetrator of an actual series of rape killings, the likes of which South Korea had not seen in its modern history. In the opening sequence, a child grasps for stick insects in a verdant paddy field, awash in sunlight. At his feet a man, who we later learn is a detective of dubious morals, stoops to look beneath the concrete slab laid over a ditch. As the camera pans we see what the boy cannot – a young woman who has been gagged, murdered and left to waste. The detective looks back up, exchanging a cheeky retort with the boy and our terror tumbles out as laughter, as the opening credits role. This uncanny juxtaposition of beauty and horror, tragedy delivered as comedy has come to define Bong Joon-ho’s films. 

The Host followed Memories of Murder in 2006, riding the country’s Bong fever to sell thirteen million tickets in its opening run and becoming the highest-grossing film in South Korea at the time. This sci-fi tale of an urban sewer monster (an unwitting creation of American scientists forcing workers to dump toxic waste into the drain) destroying a family, captured emotions while sending an unflinching message about chemical pollutants and foreign special interests. From the get-go, Bong displayed an uncanny flair for turning genre tropes into tools to have us confront real-world issues. He went on to tackle sociopolitical themes more pointedly in Snowpiercer and then Okja. 2013’s Snowpiercer was Bong’s first foray into Hollywood and saw a star cast led by Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Korean master-actor and Bong’s frequent collaborator, Song Kang-ho, in a story of class warfare as embodied by the compartments of a futuristic globe-spanning train. In Okja, which competed at Cannes for the 2017 Palme D’Or, Bong put an eerie spin on the childhood favorite, Charlotte’s Web and turned it into a wild and increasingly dark tale of a young Korean girl trying to save her genetically modified super-pig from an American factory farm. Bong’s filmmaking became a masterclass in making high art blockbusters with a purpose. 

This year Bong Joon-ho’s talents came home to roost figuratively and literally. Parasite is set in Korea and written in Korean, something Bong hadn’t done since he made Mother, 2009’s disquieting but enthralling tale of a mother-son bond. The film is also rooted by its scale, engaging in a tale of two families without venturing much further than their starkly different homes as the poor family scheme until they are all employed by the rich family. But the thing that brings it closest to home is that the premise is drawn from Bong’s own memory of being introduced to an incredibly wealthy family in Seoul as a math tutor for one of their children. His then-girlfriend, who is now his wife of over two decades, made the introduction and Bong never forgot his incredulity when he walked into the Seoul mansion in a private enclave. The idea to explore what happens when extreme wealth confronts abject poverty in close quarters gestated for years before Bong put pen to paper. Parasite is borne of Bong picking his incredulity apart and letting the sparks fly. 

Bong Joon-ho’s penchant for ceaselessly posing uncomfortable questions likely came from a healthy childhood mistrust of the way things were. He was born in 1969 and grew up in Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city. He was the youngest of four kids in an intellectual family that had experienced the myriad forces tugging at Korea. His father was a graphic designer and professor and his mother, a homemaker, was the daughter of an esteemed novelist, during Korea’s period of Japanese colonialism. She was separated from her family during the Korean War. Although Bong studied sociology in college at his parents urging, his desire to make films was firmly embedded in a childhood spent watching Hitchcock, De Palma, Carpenter and other American auteurs, while the rest of his family slept, on a channel designed for the U.S. forces stationed in Korea post the Korean War. For Bong, the freedom of Hollywood movies was incongruous with the soldiers in his backyard supposedly keeping peace but in reality, propping up an iron-fisted military. Student life that followed was marked by a mistrust of teachers, constant activism to push for freedoms and spending every spare minute at the student-run film club. By the time Bong completed two years of mandatory military service and graduated from further studies at the Korean Academy of Film Arts in 1995, the country was experiencing its first spasms of democracy. 

Today, Bong Joon-ho is fresh from bringing home Korea’s first Palme D’Or for Parasite. From early in his career Bong has been a critics’ darling and since its premiere at Cannes, Parasite has won countless awards and is a hot favorite for the Oscars. The bigger surprise has been Parasite’s commercial success outside of South Korea. It has grossed over $120mm across the globe (including $70mm from South Korea), a stunning home run for a Korean-set indie film made on a $12mm budget. It seems ironic that a hyper-local film should garner even more eyeballs and acclaim than Bong’s recent large scale works, but with Parasite Bong has made a crowd-thriller that hits a universal nerve. 

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On the surface, Parasite tells a story of class struggle that’s as old as the hills from Shakespeare to Dickens to Downton Abbey. The impoverished Kims, the patriarch Ki-taek played by Song Kang Ho and his former shot-put champ wife, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin) and their grown children, Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) and Ki-jung (Park So Dam) live in a basement apartment in the armpit of the city. They are all jobless, folding pizza boxes to tide them over. Their luck turns when Ki-woo lands a gig, by dint of an introduction from his friend and a fake degree courtesy of his graphics savvy sister, as an English tutor for the teenage daughter of the wealthy Park family. He introduces his equally conspiratorial sister as an art therapist for the Parks’ troubled young son (who they believe might be a prodigy) and son and daughter plot to have the housekeeper and driver replaced by their own mother and father. The Parks have no idea that the foursome amidst them mirrors their own and are also a family, albeit a family of schemers. Unsuspecting, the smug tech CEO father, Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun) and his affable but indolent wife Park Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong) revel in rich pride, having secured the perfect staff. 

From the opening shot of the Kim family, struggling in their cramped quarters to get Wi-Fi on their cell phones, finally climbing atop the toilet to get a signal, it’s clear that Parasite is more than just a finely crafted comedy of manners. There is hilarity at every turn in the interplay between the Parks and the Kims. What’s captivating though is Bong’s ability to expose biting satire or trenchant emotion in the smallest moments amidst the biggest laughs. We see the Parks’ perfect triplet of expensive, fluffy dogs being fed their special diets, we hear Mr. Park’s throw-away comments about the way Mr. Kim smells (like the subway) and we watch Mrs. Park take her new chauffeur, Mr. Kim, into confidence in one moment only to ask if he’s washed his hands before he shakes hers in the next. Bong has said that ‘even the most mundane of daily aspects, of individuals, carry a socio-political context within them’. With Parasite he makes us laugh while making us squirm as he peels back the inequity in everyday situations, prodding us to think about our own complicity in divisive social structures. 

Bong had initially imagined Parasite as a piece of theater because of the small cast and limited locations. In fact, it is the very ‘staging’ of the film that gives it an elevated sense of place and makes it far more expansive than its two main locations. Director Bong is known for meticulously storyboarding his films and here more than ever the result is that each frame looks perfect and yet effortless and each camera angle is evocative. The two homes in Parasite may look like the product of impeccable location scouting but are actually Bong’s most intricate creations, built from scratch. The Kims’ apartment which sits under street level with a claustrophobic, winding layout and a high, horizontal window that lets in just a sliver of light along with the cacophony of the grimy alley, is a direct counterpoint to the hill-set minimalist Park mansion whose breezy interior draped in glass and softwood blends seamlessly with its lush lawns. The mansion was based on virtual models and built on an empty lot and the basement flat and its entire surrounding neighborhood was built in a water tank to allow for it to be filled with water during a flood later in the film. The homes mirror each other as the two families do and the tension between the spaces only heightens the suspense of lies waiting to be found out and personalities on a collision course. 

The two-headed monster of space is a major signifier in Parasite and pervasive visual cues echo its themes and symmetry without ever feeling heavy-handed. The prelude to the film’s climax unfolds over a night of torrential rain that itself takes on duel significance. The Parks return home early from a washed-out camping trip and the Kims, who while enjoying the run of the place have discovered a secret in the basement (devastating the house’s surface charm), must escape unnoticed. The Parks’ young boy insists on erecting a teepee in the garden and playing camp prompting his parents to indulge him by sleeping in their capacious living room overlooking the garden. In a simultaneously hilarious, ludicrous and nail-biting moment the Kims crawl out roach-like from under an enormous coffee table while the Parks are having sex on the couch. Scampering out of the house, their visual descent into the subway is their symbolic descent into a new hell. The same rain that is mere atmospheric backdrop to the Parks’ lovemaking finds the Kims’ home deluged, the toilet of the opening sequence literally overflowing with the city’s shit as wealth ensures that nature doesn’t unleash its fury in equal measure. The make-shift camp where the Kims eventually find shelter is a sobering contrast to the spoiled child in the teepee.

None of Bong’s brilliance in Parasite comes without an exceptionally talented team, but his crucial collaborator, in this their fourth film together, is actor Song Kang Ho, the Kim family patriarch. Song, one of the most prolific actors in South Korea, projects humor, pathos, indifference and rage with Chaplin-esque ease and brings an authenticity to roles that take even the most dramatic turns as is the case with much of the country’s cinema. Parasite is no exception and the dialing up of tension and turn to all-out terror rests on Songs ability to move through mood. He greets us as paternal buffoon, puts us on edge as slighted employee and in a single moment signals a despair that the film hinges on. When we find the Kims lying in the cramped, make-shift camp amongst hundreds and Ki-woo asks his father what their plan is now, Ki-taek, crushed and bereft of home and dignity, doesn’t turn around. He throws an arm over his face which remains turned to us, filling the screen, and says broken, that he has none. It’s the moment that braces us for the unthinkable. 

Song Kang Ho’s talents are perfectly partnered with a director famous for doing acrobatics with genre. Typically, genre gives the audience a sense of predictability, but for Bong, genre’s very purpose is to destabilize us. He softens us up with laughter and reels us in with suspense, ratcheting up thrills that eventually turn to horror. At this point, we question why we’re still laughing, still glued, which is the very thing that leaves us reflecting not only on what we’ve seen but where we stand in reference to it. Ki-taek’s bubbling resentment combined with the secret discovered in the hidden basement of the Parks’ home results in tragedy for both families at a garden party in the film’s final act. The blood-spattered across the finely manicured lawn that has turned battleground, is incongruous with sunshine, picnic tables and well-heeled guests. The joke is on us. Parasite delivers its heftiest gut punch when mayhem ensues because it breaks all the rules. It jolts us and the ripples last well after the credits role.

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Parasite’s ability to thrill on all these levels; comedy, drama, action, horror, is part of its wide appeal as are its unforgettable visuals, keen character portrayals and astute depictions of family – the universally relatable unit that Bong always comes back to. However, it is Parasite’s power as allegory that accords it the status of the film for our times. Bong Joon-ho is confronting us with the state of humanity. He is showing us that inequality foreshadows destruction and the Parks’ garden is merely the microcosm on which the battle plays out. He doesn’t pick a side. Neither the Kims nor the Parks are faultless or foreign to us. The Kims aren’t the only leeches, the Parks exploit their labor and are dependent on those in their employ for both convenience and status. The parasitism is mutual. The chaos is driven by the greed, capitalism and class structures that prop up a system of which we are all a part. By having the rain trigger the tragedy, Bong suggests as he has done in much of his work that, Greta Thunberg aside, we are all parasites on a planet that is erupting under our indignities. 

Chalking a vault to global fame up to his catching up with the West is probably the kind of arrogance that tickles Bong Joon-ho. The notion that the West is somehow aspirational is the love-child of colonialism and capitalism that Bong is constantly skewering. In Parasite, Bong grounds the premise in Ki-woo landing a job because his cousin is going ‘abroad’ to study and pointedly has Ki-woo teach English in a family that he ridicules for believing goods from America are ‘better’. Later, Bong ensures that the sole meal in the film is unforgettable by making it central to one of the film’s tensest sequences. On the drive back from their getaway, Mrs. Park has asked Chung-sook to prepare ram-don – instant noodles, and top them with filet mignon. As Chung-sook slices the meat for this fast food meets gourmet dish, she races to destroy all evidence that her family were in the house. Bong reveals our sameness as no matter where we grew up, we grasp that ram-don with filet mignon only exists in a world of one-percenters. Even as Bong’s film is rooted in South Korea and he is ever aware of his own status as a ‘foreigner’ to the West, it speaks a common language that hacks at the notion of superiority.

Watching Parasite, I continually found myself reflecting on my own experience. My family moved back to Mumbai from London when I was thirteen. When I walked into our flat on an elevated tree-lined street in South Mumbai, an area that brimmed with the city’s wealth, just moments after passing shanty after shanty, I felt the same jarring otherness that Bong may have felt in that first instance as a tutor. I grew complacent about it just as the Parks do. I saw rage and despair just like Mr. Kim’s and learned to adjust its volume to suit me. As an adult now living in New York and stripped of childish naiveté, I see the West acknowledge similar divisions that a few years ago, it could barely admit existed. I witness citizens railing against a system that perpetuates inequity while others seem bent on holding on to it. I worry that my participation in that battle is not much more than armchair activism. The palaces in the sky everywhere that once may have felt like proud markers on a skyline are multiplying with a force of the ‘haves’ insulating themselves whilst those less fortunate are left to push for change or worse grasp at straws. The same discomfiting awareness lands in some form on everyone that sees Parasite

The thing is ram-don with filet is everywhere. It’s not so much that Bong Joon Ho has caught up to the West but rather the inverse because the world is acutely feeling the sting of the same problems that Bong has been addressing for two decades. America, a nation famous for celebrating billionaires, is discovering that the American dream is in many parts broken. Mr. Park’s disgust with Mr. Kim’s smell is akin to yoga practicing entrepreneurs in any number of wealthy cities squirming at the homeless in a show of nimbyism that is on the rise. The shelter in the second half of the film invokes the stateless everywhere, including the refugee camps in wealthier European countries. The ideas around nationalism which surface late the film come at a time where almost every nation seems to be questioning its leadership. And the wealth disparity at the heart of Parasite is being tugged at in protests on a global scale. Director Bong has said that, ‘Regardless of country, we all live in a giant nation of Capitalism’. He’s never been more right and Parasite’s conflicts have thrust it into the zeitgeist because they simply can no longer be dismissed as ‘not us’. And while Bong is certainly not the first filmmaker to tackle these issues, his brand of storytelling has proven to be the spoonful of sugar that makes the ram-don go down. 

Director Bong expresses a modesty around the out-sized relevance of his film, but it’s fair to say he thinks a bit about outcomes. Several weeks ago on October 2nd 2019, shortly after Bong Joon Ho screened Parasite in the U.S. for the first time, news broke that the serial rapist central to Memories of Murder had confessed. Korean police announced that Lee Choon-jae, a man in his fifties, had confessed to killing fifteen people including the ten victims he had raped. Sixteen years after the film’s release and over thirty years since the events, things had come full circle for Bong. For the very last frame of Memories of Murder, Bong had asked Song Kang Ho, who played the lead detective, to look directly at the camera. He wanted him to lock eyes with the killer. Although Bong was shocked at the confession, he had made the film hoping to hold the murderer to account. Rumour has it that the killer watched Memories of Murder three times.

If Bong Joon-ho’s work has a through-line, it is that at its core he is keenly and consistently attuned the power to provoke a kind of self-reckoning. His films entertain endlessly but never shake the awareness of this driving quest as if constantly pushing us forward beyond the entertainment, characters and plot to a discordant space where make-believe clashes with a sober reality. Parasite with its eternally bleak postscript is telling us that the human condition is hopeless. It’s what we do with this provocation that matters. In the meantime, Bong Joon-ho is here, thrilling us as he holds us to account. 

Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani

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