The South Korean master dissects his deliciously dark capitalist satire, Parasite.
If there’s one movie from 2019 that’s representative of the times we’re living in, it’s Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece diagnoses our culture of socioeconomic inequality with piercing exactitude. The film is ostensibly about a poor family (the Kims) infiltrating the household of a rich family (the Parks), but there are many levels of sophisticated commentary at work beneath the surface.
These self-serving Robin Hoods are emblematic of the class conflicts caused by the spectre of capitalism, which continues to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of few to levels incompatible with democracy. Here, Bong opens up about Parasite’s visual metaphors, mocking North Korean news anchors and the 10 per cent of the film that non-Korean audiences won’t understand.
LWLies: Parasite uses a striking visual metaphor to distinguish the two families and their circumstances. Where’s your position in this social hierarchy?
Bong: I come from a middle-class family. I’m in the middle of the poor and the rich families in the film. The house that I currently live in, it’s in a high-rise apartment building, but it’s about one-sixth or one-fifth of the Parks’ house. There is no bunker in my house.
How do you know? Perhaps, there is a family that has been secretly living underneath.
[Laughs] Oh, you’re scaring me. But there’s another unit below me. So, it’s impossible to have a bunker.
Can you talk about how the camera enhances the upstairs-downstairs metaphor?
When you see Ki-woo, you feel like he’s lived in that semi-basement building all his life. When he’s first introduced by the camera panning down vertically, that’s how you first see the character. It gives the feeling he is sort of trapped in that house. In terms of the camera movement in the film, you see a lot of craning down and a lot of panning down. Even when the characters are escaping the rich house in the rain, you see them constantly going down. And in the rain, the film sort of changes into this road movie and constantly the movement is just vertically down and the only way you can really flip that and go up is through money. That is the sad reality.
Was there any film in particular or a scene from a film you were trying to emulate?
One of my favourite noir films is Force of Evil by Abraham Polonsky. In the last sequence, it just goes down, down, down. It is really one of my favourite shots. So, I really wanted to convey that same sense when they were coming down the stairs in the rain.
No modern city is immune to the widening gap between rich and poor. Did you hope to bring that to light?
Compared to North Korea, South Korea is obviously better off in terms of economic power. Despite the general welfare that society has accumulated, we still have poverty among classes. Because the society is a lot more blended, they feel relatively more inferior – and that sort of polarisation is something that applies to every country. As South Korea these days is known for K-pop and these fancy TV shows that are popular in the West, a lot of people assume that we are rich and expect that sophisticated landscape across the country. So, it may be shocking to see the poverty of South Korea as well. When I first watched Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine in 1995, there are the banlieues around Paris. I never knew those kinds of things existed before I watched that movie. But it is also the reality of Paris.
How did that scene where Moon-gwang’s housekeeper mocks a North Korean anchor come about?
That’s actually a very strange scene. A lot of North Korean anchors have a unique tone that sounds very funny to us. So, of course not all South Koreans would imitate as a joke. But a lot of comedians on TV and for stand-up will imitate the anchors. Those characters live in this bunker because it was originally made for the family to hide in case of a North Korean invasion. I feel like among themselves, they would have joked around, ‘Oh wow, thanks to North Korea, I get to live here.’ So I just assumed that joke led to the imitation.
There are no real villains in the film, but there is still a thinly-veiled critique of the new rich versus the old rich.
I wanted the rich family in this film to not seem like your conventional rich villains who are just greedy. I think more and more we’re seeing these new types of rich people in our society who are young, sophisticated, come from tech and IT, rather than the old money families. On the surface, these rich people seem sophisticated. They have really good manners. But the closer you look at them, you can see that they use very subtle ways to show disdain against people. You see more and more details of the ways they disdain people as the story progresses. Of course, that sort of creates a tension and a sense of hysteria in the film, and instigates the climax as well.
Before the Cannes premiere you said that foreign audiences will not understand the film ‘100 percent’. Why is that?
When we screened it at Cannes, I was really happy to find that the audience from all over the world laughed a lot and showed an immediate response to the film. But even then, when we it is screened in South Korea, the audiences will laugh maybe 10 per cent more. So when I say 10 per cent, this 10 per cent refers to very subtle nuances in the film. For example, when Song Kang-ho is driving and making a smooth turn, I think a lot of Korean audiences will laugh at that.
No matter how much we try to perfect our subtitles, it doesn’t perfectly capture those nuances of the Korean language. Even our protagonists. Song Kang-ho, for example, has incredible expressive power and an amazing body language, but he’s also a magician with words. He knows how to deliver specific nuances and the flavour that each word may carry. Some of that tends to evaporate with subtitles.
Parasite is released 7 February, 2020. Read the LWLies Recommends review.
Published 4 Feb 2020
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