Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 September 2019

Palme d'Or winner Bong Joon-ho: 'Rich people are parasites too'

The director tells us why his Palm d’Or-winning film ‘Parasite’ cements his style for disrupting conventions

‘Parasite’ is a commentary on polarisation and inequality in society with a rich family and a poor one at its centre. Courtesy IMDb
‘Parasite’ is a commentary on polarisation and inequality in society with a rich family and a poor one at its centre. Courtesy IMDb

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho joined a very exclusive, and rather illustrious club in May.

That is, joining ranks with a cohort of filmmakers among the best in the world, otherwise known as Palme d’Or winners – awarded to the best film at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

His victorious film, the tragicomedy Parasite, centres around two nuclear families, one rich and the other poor, in a stunning commentary about polarisation and inequality in society. The living conditions of the two families could not be more different. The destitute live in a cramped semi-basement apartment, use their neighbour’s Wi-Fi and through their window can see people urinating on the street.

The wealthy live in a house that is designed by an architect, replete with sumptuous concrete and glass surfaces. “So at first glance this film seems to be a satire of how the poor family are parasites,” Bong tells me on a beach in Cannes during the film festival. “But that is a dangerous analogy.”

The relationship between the rich and the poor

Each member of the poor family is unemployed with a bleak future ahead of them, until the son, Ki-Woo, is recommended for a job tutoring at the house of Mr Park, the newly rich owner of a global IT company. In a film packed with fantastic production design, Ki-Woo has to climb up a winding series of stairwells to go from the slums to the world of the wealthy, a short journey that highlights how geographically close the houses are, while being worlds apart.

Through a series of mishaps and surprising twists (that the director has pleaded with journalists not to reveal) more members of the poor family get to walk up the stairs – and as they do so, Bong questions who is leeching off of whom in contemporary society. Parasite shows that for a capitalist society to work and not fall into anarchy, the relationship between the rich and poor is interdependent.

The rich family are the ones who pull the poor families into their homes. They can’t do anything on their own, they have to rely on others to wash their dishes, to drive, all these menial tasks, so in terms of labour, you could say the rich family are parasites as well,” Bong argues.

The director, 49, used real-life examples from newspapers and media to imbue the fantastical tale with a contemporary resonance, and it’s this realism, combined with the black humour, that made Parasite an instant hit at Cannes.

“There is a line in the film where the father talks about how for one security position, 500 college graduates applied for the role and this is not an exaggeration, it is something that has been on the news for the past couple of years,” Bong says. Parasite is the seventh film from the Daegu-born director, who is held in high esteem as a master of breaking genre conventions and making films with abrupt tonal shifts.

A history of thought-provoking films

But he says this reputation is almost accidental. “When I’m shooting or editing, I never think what kind of genre my film is or what genre conventions I shall remain faithful to. I’m never conscious of these genres. So for Parasite and my other films, people ask, what kind of genre is it, is it black comedy, a social satire, or an action flick? And it’s all of these things.”

Bong made his first film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, in 2000, but it was his 2003 effort Memories of Murder, about the Hwaseong serial murder case, that made international audiences sit up and take note.

When I’m shooting or editing, I never think what kind of genre my film is or what genre conventions I shall remain faithful to. I’m never conscious of these genres.

Bong Joon-ho

When he made The Host in 2006, it left audiences stunned with the brilliant way it used the conventions of monster movies to highlight global pollution. His films are always trying to make absurdist comments on society – Snowpiercer was set on the last train on Earth, and in each carriage was a different microcosm of society, from the cramped poor to the partying elites.

“In all my previous films, it was about the poor, these people living in poverty,” says Bong about the perspective from which he tells stories.

But that changed with Parasite: “For the first time we filmed rich characters and a rich house.”

In preparation for the movie, the director watched 1970s crime films directed by Claude Chabrol because they often feature bourgeois characters.

He also revisited Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), which also uses a staircase as a motif.

On the Netflix vs Cannes debate

There was some irony with Bong winning the Palme d’Or, as it was his 2017 film Okja, about a young Korean girl who wins a competition breeding a “super pig”, that ignited the Cannes versus Netflix debate.

Okja was the last Netflix film to be selected for competition. This time around he didn’t have to worry about that argument, as his film will be released in cinemas, but he does say both parties should compromise to end this dispute.

“I didn’t put too much thought into the tension between Netflix and Cannes, but I hope they are resolved,” he says.

“Streaming is also a good way to watch films but, of course, the ultimate and best way to watch films is in the cinema, so I think Netflix should be more generous about releasing their films earlier and for longer in theatres, and the theatre association in France could be more flexible and compromise on their principles.

“It is great that films like Roma could be so well-received in Venice.”

But that’s a fight for other people, as Parasite opens around the world, he deservedly gets to be the King of Cannes.

Updated: June 16, 2019 05:00 PM

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