Fall 2019 Director's Profile: Bong Joon Ho
Bong Joon Ho (credit: Cine21)
The “burden” of the Palme d’Or

Writer-director Bong Joon Ho found his film Parasite (Neon) in a unique position prior to when it hit U.S. theaters earlier this month. The movie was already a commercial and critical success--a box office hit in his native South Korea, and winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or back in May. Parasite has already been named South Korea’s entry for the best international film Oscar, and is seen by many as a contender for other mainstream Academy Award honors.

Speaking to SHOOT through an English-language interpretor, Bong noted the pitfalls of plaudits, observing that while it was “an honor and a pleasure” to win the Palme d’Or, “at the same time for a filmmaker it comes as a burden. What I have to do is to make it not feel like a burden, to act as I would normally act, to naturally maintain what I have been doing,” which for him means continuing his process and projects.

That process includes his valued continuity with certain key collaborators, which again proved successful on Parasite, prime examples being cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong and editor Jinmo Yang. 

Of the latter, Bong related, “I really trust his amazing sensibility in terms of rhythm. As a film director I don’t shoot coverage. I shoot according to the storyboard I’ve done in advance. For an editor, that kind of project might feel more boring without a wide range of options. But he has amazing focus and doesn’t mind. He’s a great partner. I’m very comfortable working with him.”

As for DP Hong, Bong cited their shared “love of natural lighting, to show on screen the subtle atmosphere you see in the morning and evening with natural light.” Sunlight is a prime source of illumination for Parasite, including the two main locations--an affluent family’s mansion and an impoverished clan’s subterranean, claustrophobic dwelling.

Parasite was a departure for Bong in terms of locations--or the paucity thereof. “Personally I love shooting on location,” he shared, pointing to the far flung locales that his prior films such as Okja took him. But for Parasite, he said, “90 percent of the narrative is in two houses--one rich, one poor.” Nonetheless he found challenges and happiness in that dynamic, relating that it was “enjoyable to focus on details for both spaces.”

The separate spaces, though, become figuratively two worlds that come together--rich and poor. The former is that of the Park family who reside in a magnificent house. On the flip side we have the Kim family, who live by the seat of their pants, stealing wi-fi and hustling to exist and subsist. In a scheme hatched up by college-aged Ki-woo, the Kim children install themselves as tutor and art therapist to the Parks. The Kim patriarch and matriarch become the Parks’ chauffeur and cook/housekeeper, respectively. The Parks do not know that their new trusted support team is from the same family. A symbiotic relationship forms between the two clans but then two third parties, the Parks’ former housekeeper and her hidden husband emerge, threatening to destroy the fragile ecosystem between the Kims and the Parks. 

This story of class struggle and the widening gap between the rich and the poor at some points plays out like a comedic caper as the Kims are almost lovable con artists. But the comedy turns dramatic and more deeply poignant as a new reality sets in. making for a unique mix of the hilarious and the heart-wrenching.

Inspiration & infiltration
The inspiration for the story came innocently enough, back during Bong’s college days when he tutored a lad in a wealthy household like the one in the film. “I was fired after two months,” related Bong, but the experience on that job stayed with him, particularly the self-described “eerie feeling peering into the private lives of complete strangers, the sense of infiltrating a family.”

For Bong that infiltration extends to the audience in a sense, digging into viewers’ minds, planting a story inside them so that they can live and feel it. Parasite has been hailed as a masterpiece, reflecting Bong’s penchant for genre shifting, bold, imaginative storytelling and stylization, generating all at once emotional resonance, humor and horror, satire and profound social commentary.

Bong has written all seven films that he’s directed. He too is a study in contrasts. For example, he observed, “I tend to plan a lot,” deploying “meticulous storyboards.” This detailed planning stems from what he describes as “various forms of obsession.” But on Parasite, he learned a lesson that it can prove prudent to occasionally break from obsession to realize more from a story. “The faster you throw away the obsession, you come to a better thing--sometimes,” he affirmed.

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