Bong Joon-ho on the complex class conflict in Parasite

We spoke to the Korean filmmaker about the dark, off-kilter comedy that has been winning over audiences, critics and festival juries everywhere.

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won the Palme d’Or this year — a particularly surprising honour consider the film’s brand of dark, off-kilter comedy isn’t usually the kind of thing that gets the highest awards at the most prestigious film festivals. It’s the story of a down-on-their-luck, working-class family (the Kims) who find an opportunity to semi-con their way into gainful employment at the hands of a rich, powerful bourgeois family (the Parks). The Kims have always coveted the sort of lavish lifestyle that the Parks enjoy, and the second they get a small taste of it, their instincts are to keep reaching for more.  

The film has been a huge hit — not unusual for Bong, whose previous films The Host and Snowpiercer are some of the highest grossing films in South Korean history — but perhaps surprising considering that many aspects of its social satire seem firmly rooted in the specifics of South Korean society.

“It’s very universal, it’s a story about the rich and poor,” says Bong, “but in the layers of every detail, there are very specific Korean things. In a way, audiences can be fascinated by seeing the way things work in Korea, but there’s a central core of the film that everyone can agree on — this core about capitalism.”

As an example, I point out a scene in the film where the rich mother asks the maid to make ramdon for her son, but to put sliced sirloin in it. Ramdon, as it turns out, doesn’t really exist — it’s a portemanteau of udon and ramyeon invented by the translator who came up with the subtitles to compensate for the untranslatable jjapaguri, which is basically a mix of two instant noodle types. But in the west, this would essentially translate to putting sirloin in Kraft Dinner (something that I’m sure Donald Trump has at least tried). The signifiers are specifically Korean, but what they’re saying isn’t.

“Ramdon is some kind of food for poor or middle-class people, especially for kids,” says Bong. “The rich family have to add something — their signature, as rich people. The best part of the beef, which is quite expensive. But kids are kids, no matter if you’re rich or poor! (…) There are quite many scenes of the family eating together. In the beginning, you see the Kims eating really cheap snacks and drinking cheap beer. After the four members of the family are employed, they do a whole meat barbecue and they drink more expensive beer, but those details are very normal, very mundane. There’s a Korean word that means family but is made up of the words for mouth and together — the family eats together, which is a feeling that comes up in the movie.”

It’s hard to discuss Parasite without straight up ruining the experience of seeing it for the first time, but some of the film’s dissenters (there are not many) see it as an excoriation of the poor, its brutal satire of capitalism somehow sweeping everything together, chiefly because the poor people also do bad things. I asked Bong how he felt about the idea of moral absolutism in his work, how he manages the idea that audiences may respond in extremes to the absence of black-and-white morality in a movie that takes some very big swings. 

“Everything is in grey zones in this movie,” says Bong. “In films, you often see stereotypes of rich people who are malicious and very greedy. But, in real life, no one’s really like that. The poor family does end up doing bad things — they are con men — but you also see their clumsy side. They’re even sort of adorable! They’re hard to hate, but the environment that surrounds them causes them to act the way they do.”

Parasite is also a highly technical, borderline architectural marvel thanks in part to its one major set: the Parks’ lavish, modernist house. As I discussed the film with Bong, it became even more clear to me that almost everything that happens in it is directly related to the layout of the house. The film relies so clearly on how the house is built that its blueprints are, in some sense, almost as important as the screenplay itself.

“We built it!” says Bong. “It’s impossible to find a perfect house through location scouting. Just from the screenwriting stage, it was very clear what kind of house we needed. Otherwise, it would’ve been impossible to tell the story. I didn’t have the specific design elements of the house set, but when I was done writing it, I knew, for example, that when one character enters the front door, a certain space in the house needs to be invisible from their point of view, and when someone is talking in the kitchen, another character has to be in the staircase eavesdropping. I had to make all of those requests to the production designer. I had to keep in mind all of the blocking lines, as well as the relationships between the floors and the basement. There’s something more that I could say, but that would be spoiling! (laughs)” ■

Parasite opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 25