Parasite Review + NYFF Q&A Session: A Grim Look At South Korean Society

Palme d’Or winner and movie of the year, Parasite has captured the interest of film critics and passive moviegoers. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho has sewn together a quilt of drama, black comedy, and horror all into one. No other movie has received such worldwide acclaim or the box office numbers that Parasite has seen in these past couple of weeks. Not unlike Jordan Peele’s Us—whose metaphoric message says that the success of those above rests on the backs of the ones suffering below—Bong pits poor against poor with the opposing couples fighting for the scraps of the rich.

Song Kang-ho, a longtime partner in Bong’s film career, plays the role of Kim Ki-taek, a loving father living in a cramped semi-basement apartment with his family of four. The family work to pull together whatever income they can find—from folding pizza boxes to running a failed bakery—however, their ticket to better times presents itself when a family friend visits the son, Ki-woo, to gift him with a mysterious landscape stone that’s meant to bring fortune. Soon after, this friend gives him the opportunity to take over his tutoring job with a rich family.

Using dubious means, the entire family inserts itself into the house one by one as they replace each facet of the Park house’s employees with the rich Parks none the wiser. Exploiting their new lifestyle meant that their predecessors had to leave quickly without a Plan B, specifically the housekeeper Moon-gwang. The film lampshades the issue of the ones who lost their jobs for the Kims to be where they are, but the family quickly dismisses it as they can only be worried about themselves now. As they enjoy the fruits of their labor, the movie makes an unexpected turn with a beaten-up Moon-gwang tearfully begging to be let back in the house as she forgot something in the basement.

Before diving into spoiler territory, this film up until this point has been poignantly set up with editing and visuals to reflect a realistic take on society. Compared to his previous two films that address similar messaging on class and poverty (i.e. Okja and Snowpiecer), the human elements of the poor Kims and rich Parks hit very close to home. Moving away from the cartoonish caricature of rich people who amass mountains of wealth due to greed, the rich Parks’ blind spots are largely a result of their privilege, something any viewer can fit into. In other words, there’s a realization in Act 2 that we could fit into the shoes of the tone-deaf Parks as society turns its collective nose away from the stench of the poor.

Anyone familiar with Bong’s films knows that they’re headed for a rollercoaster downwards. The momentum of the first half of the movie builds and stretches like a sling-shot pulled back, built up tension ready to be released at a moment’s notice. Laughter turn into gasps as the reality of Moon-gwang’s situation comes to light. As the two parties fight to maintain their position within the household, the Parks announce their unceremonious return due to weather issues. The Kim family manages to gain the upper hand, but not for long as they scramble to quickly clean any evidence of the struggle and leave the house before they’re discovered.

Of course, there’s never any doubt that the Kims manage to get away without being discovered, however their sigh of relief is brief as the Parks call them all to come to their home for their son’s birthday party the next day. Less than a day after the tumultuous battle between the previous housekeeper and saving the remnants of their flood-damaged house, all Kims present themselves as if nothing has happened. However, cracks in the demeanors of both the male Kims reveal themselves, as Ki-woo questions whether he fits in this world of the wealthy and Ki-taek can no longer keep up his salesman smile.

The devastating breaking point finally comes to fruition once an enraged Geun-sae, husband of the former housekeeper, seeks to kill the Kims one by one and all hell breaks loose. Chung-sook, the mother, manages to subdue him but not before he mortally wounds Ki-jung. At the same time, the Park’s son has a seizure and Mr. Park commands Ki-taek to hand him the keys as his daughter lays dying. Unfortunately, the key toss is unsuccessful and lands under Geun-sae’s dead body. Infuriated at the sight of Mr. Park holding his breath to grab the keys, Ki-taek stabs Mr. Park, driven by pent up emotions and serving as a metaphorical act of rebellion against the rich.

Who is the real “parasite” in this movie? After all, it could be argued the rich are the parasites of society benefiting from the labor of the poor, while the other two poorer parties in the film are feeding off the excess of the rich Parks. Clearly, the Kim family is not poor because of their incompetency; rather they’re excellent at the jobs they’ve conned their ways into. For example, Chung-sook concocts a meal requested by Mrs. Park in less than 10 minutes of web surfing.

Bong’s characters are complex and human. Despite this world of glowing K-pop idols and the glitzy display of wealth for South Korean stars, Bong reminds watchers that there is much work for society to do. The divide between the rich and poor in South Korea is widening, with the dream of the poor breaking out of their situation being just that—a mere dream.

The following is the Q&A session with Director Bong and three of the lead actors at NYFF on October 5th, 2019.

Q: Can you tell us about the title of the film?

Bong Joon-ho: Parasite seems like a sequel to The Host, people assume so of this film. I actually enjoyed the responses. I first came up with this idea while working on Snowpiercer, which also deals with class and about the struggle between the rich and the poor. But this time instead of it taking place on a train, I wanted to talk about neighbors and a story we encounter all the time.

Q: Where does the story fit in your themeography? The last couple of films you’ve done, “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” are within this sci-fi and fantasy genre. However, “Parasite” leans more towards the realist register, and it almost seems like it could be taken from the news similar to “Memories of Murder.” To what degree did you base this off your observations of South Korean life today? I’d also like the cast to weigh in on this as well.

Bong Joon-ho: I think the story reflects what’s happening in South Korea as well as the rest of the world, where the gap between the rich and poor is widening. Less so what you see on the news or any specific political message, this film really carries fragments from my own memory in college where I worked as a tutor.

Bong Joon-ho: I have pretty vivid memories of when I first entered that rich house as you see Ki-woo entering those grand iron gates. And I taught a middle school boy from a very rich family. One day he took me to the second floor of their house and showed me a private sauna. I was very surprised that a private sauna was in the house, and it was pretty like the one you see in this film.

Q: What are your thoughts on the themes of this film?

Song Kang-ho: I think with this film we see the pinnacle of the realism that Director Bong has pursued over his career of the past 20 years. If you can say that Snowpiercer, Okja, and Mother all form a staircase, then Parasite would be at the top of the staircase.

Q: Kang-ho is one of the great actors in cinema today and you’ve worked with him in four movies so far. Casting families are a particular thing, but can you tell us how you brought them together?

Bong Joon-ho: I actually had Kang-Ho in mind before I started writing the script. When I knew that he would play this role before I started to write, I became bolder at writing. While we were filming Okja and Choi was a crazy truck driver, I knew he would play a role in this movie, but I thought it would be interesting for him to play the son.

Park So-dam is known as one of the great actresses of this generation, so I was interested in casting her as well. One day I looked at a photo of her and Choi side by side and I realized they looked incredibly similar. When you look at a family photo, no one has to explain it to you because you just know that they’re siblings. That’s why when you see the opening scene and watch them searching for Wi-Fi, there’s a shot where they’re side by side and that’s why I included that in the movie.

Q: I want you to talk about architecture and how you work with space in film. The house is an important part of the film, and you’re involved in all parts of the movie. You’re a very precise filmmaker, so what was it like to work with the space and the cast? For the actors, what was it like working with Director Bong on that side?   

Bong Joon-ho: With the poor house, a lot of the actors spent time there as if it was their own. They had a barbeque there, and they seemed very attached to that space, so I’d like to hear from the actors what their experience was.

Choi Woo-shik: So, we actually built that semi-basement house—the Kim’s house—for the flood scene. When we were shooting it, we kind of got really emotional because we lived in it around two months and it was almost as if it was our real one.

Park So-dam: I was really surprised to find myself shooting in pajamas and other comfortable clothes. We went there for about two months and at the scene when we were shooting the flooding scene, I saw the director’s monitor with the closeup on the father’s face and I actually ended up crying because I was so emotional.

Bong Joon-ho: You already know that the rich house, poor house, and all of the poor neighbors are all part of a set. The flood scene is when we dumped a whole tank of water into it, so after the whole set and the streets were torn down. On the last day of shooting on the set, we had to flood it but we poured very clean water that looked dirty.

Choi Woo-shik: The water was actually full of some kind of mud-tech, so it was actually good for your skin like skincare.

APA: In the ending of the film, is that dream scene attainable or not?

Choi Woo-shik: I can actually answer that. During that last scene, there’s a song that plays as the credits roll. Ki-woo would spend his days working part-time jobs to save up his money. The song was written by Director Bong and the title was “547 Years,” which is the estimated amount of time it would take for him to save in order to buy that house.

Bong Joon-ho: It was a very cruel calculation, but we did the work to find the number. We factored his average salary to see how long it would take. When Ki-woo tells his dad that all he has to do is come up the stairs when he buys the house, I think the people in the audience know that it’s impossible and that’s the really sad part of the ending. The last face that we see, its very subtle and complicated and that just makes it even sadder.

Q: There was a shift in tone—at first it’s a nice, comedic family film to something that’s turned on its head—when you were writing, did you have a specific genre in mind? How did you approach the shift in tone to enhance the film?

Bong Joon-ho: When I write my script, it’s not like I print each page in different colors to signal that it’s black comedy in this scene or if it’s horror, it should be red. I never identify when I shift. To be honest, when I’m writing or shooting the film I’m never aware of it. I’m also curious myself because a lot of people comment on how the tone seems to change and shift, and as a result when I see the finished movie I also get that sense as well. Nonetheless, the I think the film still feels very coherent despite the shift because of the actors that are with me today. The power comes from them.

Even if the camera changes, or if the lighting and atmosphere change, the actors still maintain their core and they continue that sense of reality as if they’re our neighbors. No matter what changes, as the actors carry that core around the film, I have more freedom to play around with genre and tone.

Q: This is a question for the actors. What did you think about forming the family?

Song Kang-ho: I did a horrible job educating my children and that led to the downfall of my family. As Director Bong mentioned, it’s not as if I separated the parts in the script where it’s comedy or horror or ending in this grand drama. This film is ultimately our lives and the lives we lead in Korea, which can be sympathized with in countries all over the world. Acting is the same where there’s elements of joy and sadness, because they coexist together. Very naturally I focus on this family and try to portray them as natural as possible.

Choi Woo-shik: It’s been a great experience for all of us. It’s an honor to experience this moment with the cast and crew around me. And who would’ve thought I could teach acting to So-dam. It was really fun.

Park So-dam: To be honest, the role Ki-jung had isn’t something that people clap for or praise her for, but at the same time when I was acting it, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. That was more because I felt part of the family, and not just doing it for the sake of the family. That means growing up and living in a small house in a basement. I feel like Ki-jung wouldn’t have hatred against the world or complain about it. Because of that and because she’s part of a loving family, the first time she entered the big house, she felt very natural and fit right in walking and owning the space as is. And because of that, I felt it clicked as everything I did was under the name of family.

Q: Director Bong, as follow-up to the question on acting, do you rehearse with your actors and what sort of preparation time was spent with the actors? Some of it was very physical, such as the fighting scenes, can you tell us how you prepared for that as well?

Bong Joon-ho: Neither the actors here nor I like rehearsals, particularly the boy who played the little rich young boy. He really did not like rehearsals, so all of us just wanted to roll the cameras as soon as possible.

Song Kang-ho: None of the action scenes were that difficult. For any good scene, you have to suffer a little physically to get what you want.

Choi Woo-shik: Because we stayed in the same hotel for two months, it was almost like living with your family. At the end of the day, you’d eat together and then go home. We were very comfortable with each other in that sense and was prepared to shoot.

Park So-dam: One of the most important things is that Director Bong walked us through the layout and helped us understand the space. That would give us the backbone to figure things out, but everyone was so comfortable with each other that it was natural, and we didn’t have to rehearse much.

Bong Joon-ho: Unlike films here, there are no trailers on set in the Korean film industry. Every actor here would go back to their trailers, but Korean actors are always together. Even after shooting they would eat together and hang out. They’re practically a family before the set so I didn’t have a lot to do.

Parasite opened in US theaters on October 11.


Kalai Chik

Pop culture writer focusing on animation, music, and games. Los Angeles native, USC alumni, and contributor for Asia Pacific Arts since 2015. Follow me on Twitter, @kalai_chik.

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