Writer-director BONG Joon Ho talks about his ‘unstoppably fierce family tragicomedy’ Parasite

More than any other of his films, BONG Joon Ho’s Parasite a genre-defying tale of class warfare, about the state of today’s society, and the impossibility of people of different classes living together in a symbiotic relationship.

At this year’s Oscars, The South Korean Palme d’Or-winning satire  Parasite was named best picture, a first for a foreign-language film and a historic victory that underscored the movie academy’s increasing focus on international cinema. No film from South Korea had previously been nominated for Hollywood’s top prize. It also won Best International Feature, Best Director for Bong Joon-ho and Best Original screenplay for Bong and Han Jin-won.

It received four nominations at the 73rd British Academy Film Awards, winning Best Film Not in the English Language, Best Original Screenplay. It also became the first non-English film to win the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.

Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won Best Original Screenplay at the 2020 Oscars

In Parasite, Ki-taek’s family of four is close, but fully unemployed, with a bleak future ahead of them. The son Ki-woo is recommended by his friend, a student at a prestigious university, for a well-paid tutoring job, spawning hopes of a regular income. Carrying the expectations of all his family, Ki-woo heads to the Park family home for an interview. Arriving at the house of Mr. Park, the owner of a global IT firm, Ki-woo meets Yeon-kyo, the beautiful young lady of the house. But following this first meeting between the two families, an unstoppable string of mishaps lies in wait.

The two families in this story have some things in common, both being made up of four members with a son and daughter. But in terms of their everyday lives, they occupy two different extremes. Still, they are brought together in a relationship of employment, leading to an unpredictable outcome.

BONG Joon Ho has previously tackled class hierarchies in Snowpiercer and the inhuman workings of capitalism in Okja, but in Parasite he delves more closely into the question of co-existence. Is some sort of arrangement possible whereby both sides can co-exist in a symbiotic relationship, or is it inevitable that one side must resort to parasitism? There are no villains in Parasite, but that doesn’t make the inevitable conflict and collision between the two sides any less intense. 

BONG Joon Ho has won over many fans for the creative manner in which he inverts and disassembles genre conventions. His films combine humor, satire, social criticism, and suspense in wholly unpredictable combinations, making for a particularly dynamic viewing experience.

Whereas in some of his previous works he has used a particular genre as a starting point, as with the police procedural in Memories of Murder or the monster movie in The Host, in the case of Parasite it is hard to even describe the film in terms of genre.

BONG himself describes it as a “family tragicomedy,” but acknowledges that some viewers may see it as more of a thriller or black comedy. The unique characters and surprising turns of the plot may resist genre categorization, but audiences are still sure to be entranced by the work’s energy and powerful momentum.

For a film with such powerfully distinctive characters, and in which the shifting relationships between characters do so much to propel the plot forward, it was essential for BONG Joon Ho to assemble a top-notch cast. Given the director’s reputation and discerning eye it is no surprise that he was able to create an ensemble that features not only top-level talent like SONG Kang Ho but also a host of superbly talented veteran and young actors who display previously hidden sides to their screen personae. Even those actors who appear in smaller, supporting roles end up leaving a powerful impression in their limited screen time.

Parasite derives much of its energy from the contrast between the lifestyle of the wealthy Park household and the desperate situation faced by Ki-taek and the other members of his family. Moreover, while the plot unfolds, several of the characters adopt alternate roles and personae in order to achieve their goals. This, together with BONG Joon Ho’s distinctive dialogue, gives the actors much material to work with, and they take advantage of it fully to create a memorable and entirely new sort of ensemble performance.

“It is increasingly the case in this sad world that humane relationships based on co-existence or symbiosis cannot hold, and one group is pushed into a parasitic relationship with another. In the midst of such a world, who can point their finger at a struggling family, locked in a fight for survival, and call them parasites?It’s not that they were parasites from the start. They are our neighbors, friends and colleagues, who have merely been pushed to the edge of a precipice. As a depiction of ordinary people who fall into an unavoidable commotion, this film is: a comedy without clowns,a tragedy without villains,all leading to a violent tangle and a headlong plunge down the stairs.You are all invited to this unstoppably fierce tragicomedy.”

Parasite is the seventh feature film from the acclaimed BONG Joon Ho, following on from Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Mother (2009), Snowpiercer (2013), and Okja (2017). The modern-day classic Memories of Murder delves into the investigation behind a well-known serial murder case that was never solved, depicting the authoritarian era of the time with satire and sharp insight. The Host takes as its basis the abduction of a young girl by a strange creature that crawls out of the Han River, turning the monster movie genre on its head while also issuing stinging social commentary. Mother, the story of a woman trying to protect her son from a murder charge, is a dark portrait of motherly love taken to the extreme, while the SF film Snowpiercer portrays the last remnants of humanity in a future world that has been frozen over due to mankind’s overdone efforts to fix global warming. Finally Okja tells of the country girl Mija’s adventure to rescue the genetically-engineered “super pig” she raised from the profit-driven corporation that owns it.

Known for his cutting, socially incisive wit and twisting of genre conventions, BONG Joon Ho has continually raised questions about social institutions and the inequities of society with his unique blend of humor, emotion and suspense. In this sense, Parasite is both highly characteristic of BONG Joon Ho’s work, while at the same time evolving to a new level.

Interview with BONG Joon Ho

What is the meaning of the title Parasite?

At first, everyone expected that Parasite would be a creature movie or SF film. Even more so because the title forms a connection with my previous film The Host. But as I have said before, this film’s protagonists are family members living in the real world. There are people who hope to live with others in a co-existent or symbiotic relationship, but that doesn’t work out, so they are pushed into a parasitic relationship. I think of it as a tragicomedy that depicts the humor, horror and sadness that arise when you want to live a prosperous life together, but then you run up against the reality of just how difficult that can be. It’s an ironic title, not unlike the original Korean title of Memories of Murder, which carries the connotation of “warm, pleasant memories.” How can one hold warm, nostalgic memories of a murder? Is it wrong to do so? In the same way that film depicts the memories of an era through the Hwaseong serial murder case, Parasite too carries an ironic nuance in its title. 

How would you categorize the genre of Parasite?

It’s a human drama, but one that is strongly imbued with the contemporary. Although the plot consists of a string of unique and distinctive situations, it is nonetheless a story that could very well take place in the real world. One can see it as taking an incident that was on the news or on social media, and putting it on the screen. So in that sense it’s a quite realistic drama, but I wouldn’t object if one were to call it a crime drama, a comedy, a sad human drama, or a horrific thriller. I always try my best to overturn viewer expectations, and I hope Parasite succeeds in this way.

Who are the families at the center of Parasite?

They are a lower-class family living in a squalid semi-basement flat who just hope for an ordinary life, not anything special – but even that proves hard to achieve. The father has accumulated numerous business failures, the mother who trained as an athlete has never found particular success, and the son and daughter have failed the university entrance exam on multiple occasions.

In contrast the family of Mr. Park, who works as the CEO of an IT firm (not connected with any of Korea’s chaebol business conglomerates) is a competent, newly rich family. Mr. Park is something of a workaholic. There is his beautiful young wife, and his cute high school aged daughter and young son. They can be seen as an ideal four-member family among the modern urban elite.

Tell us about how you cast the roles in the film, and your reasoning behind it.

For this film it was important to assemble a cast that would play off each other well and form an effective ensemble, as with a soccer team. They needed to project the air of a family at first sight, so I gave it a lot of thought. The first one I cast was SONG Kang Ho, and then as I was shooting Okja with CHOI Woo Shik I thought it would be fun to cast him as SONG Kang Ho’s thin son. After that, the similar-looking PARK So Dam, who has great acting skills and projects a distinctive, vague sense of reality, was cast as his sister. It was important that they resemble each other to express the physical connection between the family members. As for the actress CHANG Hyae Jin, I liked the understated, everyday strength she projected in the film The World of Us and so I placed her in the role of SONG Kang Ho’s powerful wife.

As for the Park family, I didn’t want the typically clichéd portrayal of the upper class that you see in Korean TV dramas, so instead I needed actors who projected a cultured and kind image. I’ve always been impressed by the multifaceted charm of LEE Sun Kyun, so he was cast as Mr. Park. In the case of CHO Yeo Jeong, she strikes me as resembling an incredibly deep diamond mine that has yet to be fully explored, and so I cast her in the hopes of revealing even a part of it. This isn’t a film with a single protagonist, so the way the actors all responded to each other was extremely important. In the end I was really thankful to them for each playing their part so well, like a well-coordinated soccer team.

What kind of image of contemporary society did you want to project through this film?

I think that one way to portray the continuing polarization and inequality of our society is as a sad comedy. We are living in an era when capitalism is the reigning order, and we have no other alternative. It’s not just in Korea, but the entire world faces a situation where the tenets of capitalism cannot be ignored. In the real world, the paths of families like our four unemployed protagonists and the Park family are unlikely ever to cross. The only instance is in matters of employment between classes, as when someone is hired as a tutor or a domestic worker. In such cases there are moments when the two classes come into close enough proximity to feel each other’s breath. In this film, even though there is no malevolent intent on either side, the two classes are pulled into a situation where the slightest slip can lead to fissures and eruptions.  

In today’s capitalistic society there are ranks and castes that are invisible to the eye. We keep them disguised and out of sight, and superficially look down on class hierarchies as a relic of the past, but the reality is that there are class lines that cannot be crossed. I think that this film depicts the inevitable cracks that appear when two classes brush up against each other in today’s increasingly polarized society.

What do you hope viewers will get out of this film?

I just hope that it gives audiences a lot to think about. It is in parts funny, frightening, and sad, and if it makes viewers feel like sharing a drink and talking over all the ideas they had while watching it, I’ll wish for nothing more.