Interview: Bong Joon Ho On ‘Parasite,’ Awards Recognition & Film Scores

Warning: This interview contains spoilers!

Since bursting onto the world stage with Memories Of Murder, Bong Joon Ho has established a reputation as one of cinema’s true visionaries. Whether he’s reinventing the monster movie (The Host) or twisting a family drama into something else entirely (Mother), the South Korean filmmaker never fails to up the ante. That’s particularly true of his critically-adored, Palme d’Or-winning Parasite. Other directors have shined a light on the chasm between rich and poor, but nobody has done it with as much flair, tension and originality as BJH.

The auteur is currently in the US on a promotional tour ahead of the film’s North American release on October 11. I recently had the opportunity to chat with him about Parasite, particularly his deep dive into the murky waters between good and bad. We also spoke about the film’s status as an Academy Awards contender, the importance of sound design and scoring to his art, and the director’s appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock’s later works. Learn more about Parasite below.

What was the original idea for Parasite?

The core keyword for this film is infiltration, the sense of just discreetly creeping in to another family. That’s why the title is Parasite as well. Like the protagonists of this film, I also worked as a tutor when I was in college. Not high school girls, I mostly taught teenage boys. I actually tutored for a very rich family once and I remember the boy just taking me up to the second floor and showing off their private sauna. At the time I was very surprised. Do you remember in the movie there was a small private sauna?

Yes, I do.

Anyway, at the time, until right now, it was quite inspiring because it felt like I was spying on the other family, on another person’s private life. It felt like I had infiltrated that family and I wanted to expand that sense into an entire family unit with this film as there were different jobs available for them, like a driver.

The title works on many levels. The poor family infiltrates the rich family. Then, at the end of the film, the father is literally stuck inside the building — like a parasite inside a body. On top of that, the son wants to become rich like them in order to get the house back. Which parasitic act were you referring to?

The ending is like the desire of a parasite wanting to swallow up its host but, realistically, it would be very difficult for him to buy the house. We actually calculated how long it would take with his average salary and it would take around 540 years for him to own it.

You actually calculated it?

Yes, it’s a very cruel calculation.

There are no real heroes or villains in Parasite. Each family is sympathetic in their own way. How do you think US audiences will respond to this grey moral landscape?

Considering the reactions I’ve heard from American audiences so far, while most films have very clear heroes and villains, because this film is so realistic, they seem to just sympathize it with it very easily. Even without those heroes and villains, it’s pretty much exactly like the world we currently live in. The actual world becomes a reference for them. The response is pretty similar in Australia and across Europe.

But to go further in, although this film doesn’t have clear villains, it ends with an explosive moment, a horrendous tragedy. I would like the audience to reflect on why does that happen when there aren’t any villains? That question leads to the true message hidden throughout the film. There are no evil rich men [in the movie]. Take the CEO, he is also very smart, a hard worker. And the the poor people, they also are not evil. But this scary thing happens, so that’s the major question of this movie.

Another thing I love about Parasite is, and please excuse my pronunciation, Jeong Jae-Il’s score.

You said it perfect. He also scored Okja. It was my second time working with him.

What brief did you give him? The score really elevates the film.

In Korea, we have an onset editor during production. It’s a very unique culture we have in the Korean film industry. Basically, we have a very rough edit even before we begin post-production, and it’s very useful for me and the composer to test out various scores. On the rough version, we added some baroque tracks to see how they would feel and, in the end, you see the baroque score featured in many of the key sequences throughout the film. I think it really suited that pretension the poor family has when they infiltrate the rich house. They want to seem sophisticated and elegant. I think it adds another layer of black comedy.

It works brilliantly. I remember reading how important Bernard Herrmann’s music was to Hitchcock’s storytelling. Are sound design and scoring key ingredients in your art?

If you put music into that large range of sound, I think I become more sensitive and enjoy that process most when I’m working on the sound [as opposed to the integrating score]. For example, like many others. I’m also a huge fan of Bernard Herrmann and the role he played in Hitchcock’s movies, but, at the same time, I also love the very silent moments in Hitchcock’s films. For example, in his later works. Frenzy is one of my favorite Hitchcock movies.

There is an amazing scene, the second murder scene in the movie when the killer strangles the lady. [Afterwards], the camera very slowly pans out, under the very strong daylight, to show everyday life. It is nearby Covent Garden. You see the market surrounding the garden and you don’t hear any music. It’s just everyday noise and that’s something I always wanted to try.

Parasite is rightfully being touted as an Academy Award contender this year. What would it mean for you if you were recognized?

There’s no way I can really predict with this. It’s a very complicated system compared to other international festivals. The US distributor is running an academy campaign but I just try to stay comfortable and enjoy the process. For me, it’s a great opportunity to just meet a lot of fascinating artists in America.

Congratulations on the film. I hope you win.

Thank you so much.

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