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In depth with 'Parasite' director Bong Joon-ho after winning the Cannes top prize

Director Bong Joon-Ho, winner of the Palme d'Or award for his film "Parasite" poses at the winner photocall during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival Source: AAP

SBS Korean speaks with one of the brightest lights in cinema at the moment, director Bong Joon-ho, whose highly acclaimed film 'Parasite' just won the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or award.

The South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is one of the leading directors working today, making ambitious genre-bending films such as 'Snowpiercer' and 'Okja'.

His latest offering ‘Parasite’ won the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or in May as well as the Sydney Film Festival's main award in June.

The film follows the story of a lower-class family who tries to improve their social situation by infiltrating a rich household.

Bong Joon-ho's satire 'Parasite'
Bong Joon-ho's satire 'Parasite'
Getty Images

In the film, the director aimed at a satire on inequality through the experiences of two very different families.

"I think I have a perverted sensibility in that when the audience laughs I want them to feel like they shouldn't be laughing," he told SBS Korean in an exclusive interview.

“The audiences feel very sorry for the characters they are laughing at. The awkward emotion they feel when they laugh, that's what I like!" 

SBS Korean producer Clara Kim sat down with Mr Bong Joon-ho to talk about all things films. 

Clara: Parasite! This word has become such a positive issue all over the world, hasn't it? I think in a hundred years or so, they will see that the most talked word of 2019 was 'parasite'.

Bong Joon Ho: As you told me, there's a negative nuance in Parasite. That's true. However, the title of the movie always gives a different context from the original [word]. If you watch this movie and follow up the story for two hours, I think it's possible for you to come up with a different feeling from the feeling of the word itself.

Another movie, Memories of Murder, which I directed in 2003 was the same. When we look at the word itself ‘murder’, it is horrible. How to murder can be a memory? But when you look at the whole story of the heartbreaking movie, it gets contextual and, as you can understand. I think Parasite will be the same.

Clara: Your film ‘Parasite’ is very popular in South Korea right now. How does it feel?

Bong Joon Ho: There are more than 7 million viewers in South Korea until now. I think 8 million viewers will be able to be reached by next week. I'm grateful to the audience. It's not just a movie that's comfortable, sweet, and smooth, right? Because it's so real, there are some uncomfortable elements, heavy and dark parts, and of course, there are bursts of laughter as well. It's all mixed up. Some Korean audiences interpret the movie actively and watch it twice, three times over and over again. So I'm very grateful.

Clara: I heard that the number of female viewers is more than twice that of male viewers. Why is that?

Bong Joon Ho: Really? I didn’t know. We must analyse the reason later.

Clara: Perhaps because of the actresses in the film?

Bong Joon Ho: I don’t know the reason exactly but our actresses, Cho Yeo Jeong as ‘Yeon-Kyo’ and Park So Dam as ‘Ki-Jung’, said that the number of their female fans increased since the release. They are actresses, but they have a lot of female fans now. It's a good thing, right? They say that female fans leave a lot of comments and reactions on their Instagram and social media. Listening to the ratio of the audience from you, I guess there's a female character that female audiences like?

Clara: I think you always painted disparate and contradictory elements. In ‘Snowpiercer' (2013), there were slum cabins and luxury cabins together. In ‘OKJA' (2017), there was a mountain girl and a New York global company together. In this movie, you explicitly portray the conflicting lives of the poor and the rich as decalcomania and ‘smell’ is a medium to connect the opposite things. What’s the reason for this?

Bong Joon Ho: ‘Smell’ is not an easy topic to talk to each other in our daily lives, isn’t it? Even family, it's too stark and sometimes rude to talk about it. Literally, this movie is dealing with human courtesy and mutual courtesy between rich and poor. As I've been dealing with human manners. There's a kind of moment in the movie where human manners collapse at risk and ‘smell’ is like a fuse of the collapse in this movie. So the motif of smell had to be used very closely.

You said that there are disparate and contradictory elements in one movie. Yes, because there are the themes of poverty and wealth in this one film, the two elements are very closely intertwined. There are two closely contrasting worlds that are very close enough to smell each other. That's the situation with the characters in this movie. Because it's about poor people entering a wealthy family, it consists of a very private and a close-up view of another person's private life.

Clara: I think the house was highlighted in this film as well. There's a contrast between the rich house and poor house. Did you build the house as a whole?

Bong Joon Ho: Actually, 90 per cent of this film has been filmed at houses. I believe you can do enough to make this movie into a play because there aren't many places. Yes, 90 per cent of the stories go on in two houses. Especially in a rich house, around 60 per cent of stories go on and it is like a small universe. There are a lot of cases there, and they're divided into floors. So I built the house with great effort and sophistication. I had to work hard to design house because it was like the universe. It was impossible to find the same house which I imagine in my scenario in Seoul. So I had to make it. As a result, it cost a lot of money to produce it.

Clara: This film was considered to be the most Korean style movie but also the most universal one everywhere. And I heard that there are many lines in this movie because of the family drama. I don't think it's easy to convey nuances to foreign audiences?

Bong Joon Ho: We always enjoy foreign movies as well, don't we? We enjoy movies in English, in French, in German, in Japanese. Even if you can't figure out the nuances of a very small part, you can interact with them, enjoy them, and follow the story, right? I think it's the same for foreign audiences.

Especially, I believe the theme of the ‘rich and poor’ is common all over the world. Which country is free from that? I think it is universal enough to deal with this common problem. And comedy and visual slapstick are universal elements enough. It will be released next week in Australia and New Zealand, and you can enjoy it.

Clara: I hear a bell sounds before the movie starts. There was a bell sound as well in your former movie ‘OKJA’. Why did you put in the bell sounds at the beginning?

Bong Joon Ho: There are few theatres that have problems with sound channels and speakers. You can check the centre, right, left, rear right and rear left with this bell sounds. The sound of the bell is supposed to go around the theatre in the entire surround. If you don't hear a single bell in turn or hear a very small sound, you'll have to complain to the theatre.

Our filmmakers really try to finish the screen and sound with great sophistication including the balance of sound and so on. But some theatres that aren't properly managed may have one speaker turned off, or they may be out of course. I asked you to check that out in advance.

These days, the audience is very sensitive to such things. They buy expensive tickets that are never cheap and spend a lot of time travelling to and from the theatre to watch the movie. They want to see it under the best technical conditions.

Clara: What's the twist in this movie?

Bong Joon Ho: It's not a movie that risks its life in a huge twist. However, there are many small moments in this drama where the twists and turns of stories and things that we didn't expect to see happen. This part is closely related to the theme of the movie. It will be released in Australia on 27 June, so please hang on for a few days.

Clara: I've heard the original soundtrack. It's short, but it's very effective. Is that about your story?

Bong Joon Ho: Music director Jeong Jae-il asked me to write the lyrics while composing. He said it is best for the person who wrote the scenario to write the lyrics as well. It's not about my own story. Even after the movie is over, it feels like this person will continue to live, right? I wanted to leave some of that. It's like a person's day-to-day description. It's like he's working hard and having a glass of soju in the evening. So, the title is ‘Soju One Glass’.

Clara: If you write a scenario, I heard that you first show it to your wife. Do you get good feedback from your family?

Bong Joon Ho: My wife always reads the scenario first and the feedback is very cold. I'm always afraid because she talks a lot of cruel things.

Clara: 'Parasite' is your seventh feature film. What kind of life will you have in the future?

Bong Joon Ho: One of the representative films for Alfred Hitchcock who I respect all the time was ‘Psycho’. He was 61 years old when he shot this movie. The vivid sense of the movie and the sharpness of the production are not awkward at all today but it is still amazing. It would be great if I could be a movie director at that age and continue to surprise the audience.

Clara: I think the reason why master director Bong Joon-ho is so special to us is that he is always with us very closely. It is pleasant.

Bong Joon-ho: I'm not in the stage of my career to hear that I'm a master yet. I'm on my way to be a master. Thank you for asking me a lot of good things today.

Clara: Thanks for your time today. I met Bong Joon-ho, the young master and director of ‘Parasite’ at the Sydney Film Festival. 

The full interview is available on the SBS Korean podcast.

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