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“All Characters in ‘Parasite’ Are in the Gray Zone.” Bong Joon-ho on the War of the Classes in His New Masterpiece

The Korean director discusses working with actor Song Kang-ho and why he’s drawn to stories about the dark side of capitalism

Neon/CJ Entertainment/Ringer illustration

When the thriller Parasite premiered at Cannes in May, a hashtag appeared on Twitter: #BongHive. A swarm of devotees—both those at Cannes and others living vicariously through them—were showing their support for the Korean director Bong Joon-ho, unaware that he was about to make history: His film would go on to win top prize at the festival—the coveted Palme d’Or—a momentous first for South Korea. So momentous, in fact, that a new term started trending among film fans on the internet: “Bong d’Or” (with merch soon following, naturally).

Bong seems especially tickled by that pun. He exploded with laughter when I mentioned it during our interview on an October afternoon at the Whitby Hotel in midtown Manhattan, though it can’t be the first time he’s heard it. (He admits he’s only vaguely aware of his online hive since he doesn’t use social media.) But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Parasite is a Big Deal: Not only is it already a global box office hit, but there are also whispers of a possible Best Picture nomination at the Oscars next year. (A lot of pressure rides on the latter, as South Korea has never been nominated, even in the Foreign Film category, though they’ve submitted 31 films since 1962; the closest they ever came was last year’s shortlisting of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning.) Hailed as a masterpiece, Parasite is a hilariously twisted, anxiety-riddled film about a poor family that infiltrates a wealthy household. The film, which opens on Friday, hasn’t suffered post-festival comedown—Cannes favorites, especially Palme winners, can often be hit-or-miss, but Parasite lives up to the hype.

When Memories of Murder, Bong’s breakout sophomore feature, came out in 2003, he established himself as a leading force in a new wave of Korean cinema, in league with fellow countrymen who were telling serious, gritty stories of ambitious scope. In 2006, Bong made the monster movie The Host, reminding us that a creature feature could be smart, not silly—it was infused with family drama and social commentary while still being a blockbuster hit. His 2009 feature Mother took him back to his crime-realism roots and nabbed him the first Oscar submission from his home country (Parasite is the second). His two films before Parasite were proof that Bong was on the Hollywood radar, with Chris Evans starring in 2013’s Snowpiercer (a dystopian rich-versus-poor thriller) and Jake Gyllenhaal in 2017’s Okja (an animal-liberation fantasy adventure about a large pig-like creature). Tilda Swinton—who’s known for her unusual, daring role choices in working with visionaries—appeared in both. (“I am entirely devoted to his work as a filmmaker and would be happy to assist in any way to support and help to protect his vision in the future,” Swinton told WWD in 2017 about her collaborations with Bong.)

With Parasite (Gisaengchung in Korean), the 50-year-old director is back to working with an all-Korean cast. His muse, Song Kang-ho, who appeared in Memories of Murder, The Host, and Snowpiercer, stars as the patriarch of Parasite’s poverty-stricken family. “As a director, it’s pretty simple: We love good actors,” Bong said about returning to Song time and time again. “But, more than that, he acts with insight with every small detail and nuance, and never goes against the big context that surrounds the film. When he plays a scene, I think the audience is more convinced that something like that could happen.”

By the time we met, Bong had gained more momentum from the Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival circuits. “This may sound a little irresponsible, but to be very honest, regardless of whether it’s an international or domestic audience, I create films for me, for my own joy,” he said. “I always pursue things that seem new and fun for me and I try to satisfy myself.” Bong had been traveling a lot recently—from Toronto to Seoul to Los Angeles to New York, before heading to Los Angeles again. He was jet-lagged, naturally, and nursing a sty with an iced coffee.“Is your eye OK?” I asked in Korean. He paused his irritated eye-rubbing and shot his hand out to me. “Shall we shake hands?” he asked, then guffawed with a hearty belly laugh.

Bong has a sense of humor, but that much is obvious from his movies. I initially watched Parasite in Korea this past summer, and then again in New York in October with a mostly non-Korean-speaking crowd. Subtitled or not, the film elicits laughter in almost exactly the same way: the creative hoaxes, the eccentricities of the wealthy, the foul-mouthed gruffness of the Kims. Bong said he’s secretly sat in on the movie in many different cities: “They laugh at the same things, are shocked by the same things,” he said. But the crowd favorite—a beloved laughingstock of sorts—seems to be the naive matriarch of the rich family, Mrs. Park (Jo Yeo-jeong), who gullibly falls for one glorious scam after another. Through a chain reaction of forgery and setups, all four members of the barely-making-ends-meet Kim family manipulate the Parks into hiring them: first the son as the tutor (rebranding himself with the English name “Kevin”), then the daughter as the art teacher-cum-therapist (also rebranded as “Jessica”), then the father as the driver, and finally, the mother as the maid, pushing out the woman who had lived in the mansion even before the Parks moved in. Mrs. Park is “simple,” according to a friend of “Kevin,” and she has a penchant for mixing English phrases into her speech—a gauche signifier of sophistication and a reflection of Korea’s Americonophilia. “She probably takes Pilates lessons, works out diligently, and has a native-speaker conversation teacher who she meets once a week to practice her English,” Bong said of the backstory he’s imagined for Mrs. Park. “But she has no chance to use it, so whenever she gets the opportunity, it just slips out of her. The actor [Jo] was very entertained by it.”

Speaking with Bong, I, too, mixed my Korean with English—otherwise known as Konglish—as we contextualized the polar-opposite living situations of the Kims and the Parks. The Kims spend their days climbing on top of their toilet to leech free Wi-Fi from inside their semi-basement, while the Parks live in an architectural utopia. The glass mansion where the Parks reside—which, by the way, was a digitally furnished soundstage set—almost seems like a fantasy. Most well-to-do Koreans live in luxury apartments; to live in a house like that would mean you were at the tippity-top of the food chain. When I expressed my disbelief at that residence, Bong told me to check out Seongbuk-dong, a rich neighborhood in northern Seoul, the next time I’m in Korea. The house in the film may be a set, but the exteriors of streets were shot there, and Bong assured me people really do live like that, even in a crammed city like Seoul.

Those even somewhat familiar with Bong’s filmography will notice his continued fascination with class differences. In his school days, Bong was embedded in protests, in a country recovering from military dictatorship. His most recent films all have to do with laypeople fighting against authoritarian forces in a capitalist system. The distinction between good versus evil were a bit clearer in Okja and Snowpiercer, but Parasite is more complicated than that, and those nuances make it a richer film. “All characters in Parasite are in the gray zone,” Bong said. “They’re all nice to some degree and bad to some degree. And I think that’s closer to reality.” There are twists to the film’s alliances—which I won’t spoil here—but rooting for one family or another is never very easy.

Bong name-checks Jordan Peele and Ken Loach as filmmakers also concerned with class. But Bong’s socioeconomic themes—also present in Lee’s Burning, another tale of class warfare, as well as the countless Korean shows and films pitting the haves against the have-nots—can feel like a specifically Korean cinematic interest. That can be credited to South Korea’s uniquely rapid economic boom, which largely happened under the military dictatorship of President Park Chung-hee, who aggressively prioritized economic growth over civil liberties. “I turned 50 this year and during the past half-century, I watched Korea develop into a pretty rich nation,” Bong said. “But, like Germany and first-world nations of Europe, the richer the country gets, the more the relative gap between the rich and the poor becomes wider. And so you get this polarization. And I think Korea is the same.”

In Parasite, that gap pervades every aspect of the two families’ lives—in smell (an important part of the film) and in the literal climate. When a torrential storm hits, the Kims’ abode is almost devastated, while the heavy downpour becomes a fun excuse for the Parks’ young son to camp out in a tent in the front yard. It’s both fascinating and sickening to watch.

Yet for all the sensationalism and even fantastical elements of Parasite, Bong gives his audience a reality check as they exit the theaters. It’s something only Korean speakers may catch: The end-credits song, “Soju One Glass,” composed by Jung Jae Il, is sung by Choi Woo-sik, who plays Ki-woo (a.k.a. Kevin), the Kim family son and a key figure throughout the film. “As people were leaving the theater, I wanted them to hear Ki-woo’s voice at the end,” Bong said. “So I asked the actor to sing the song and I wrote the lyrics myself.” The unsubtitled words to the song document a hard day’s work that’s filled with pollution and calloused hands and ends with drinking soju. Initially Bong wanted something a bit optimistic—and the up-strum guitar and Choi’s boyish voice convey that—but “eventually the lyrics were not so optimistic. I really wanted to relay the sense that he is continuing to just live his life and work and maybe after work he comes home to have a shot of soju,” Bong said. “Just that very simple sense that he’s living on with his life.”

Surprisingly, Bong is optimistic about the future despite constant reminders of a turbulent climate ahead. “It will get better,” he said, speaking of his 23-year-old son and possible future grandchildren’s generations. It’s heartening to hear that from Bong, and we parted in high spirits—with a handshake. As I left the room, I suddenly remembered that he was rubbing his eye with that hand. Getting infected by the director of Parasite might not be so bad, I thought. But I ran to the bathroom and vigorously washed my hands anyway.

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim is a South Korea–born, New York–based writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Pitchfork, and elsewhere.