Bong Joon-ho on Why All His Films are Monster Movies, Including ‘Parasite’

Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler. Just a fact.
Parasite Screenshot
By  · Published on October 3rd, 2019

A parasite is not a monster. It’s an organism that feeds off another organism to survive. The parasite is not committing an evil act; it’s simply living to see tomorrow. That’s not to say that Bong Joon-ho‘s latest film, which takes its title from the freeloading creature, is devoid of monsters. Uh-uh. There are plenty to be found during its runtime, but I’ll let you discover those beasts for yourself when you finally sit down for the film.

Bong is delighted to be called a monster movie maker. While The Host may be his most traditional entry within the subgenre, he happily highlights other beastly contenders inside his filmography. He loves a good monster, but he’s not Guillermo del Toro. He’s more interested in how the werewolves and vampires transform daily routine into extraordinary events. In Parasite, the impoverished Kim family develops an obsession for the absurdly affluent Park family. As they worm their way into the Parks’ glamourous lifestyle, an ugliness seeps into both of their worlds. There is horror, but who is to blame? Who is the enemy?

I was allotted a brief conversation with Bong a few hours before Parasite screened at Fantastic Fest. The director was extremely excitable while discussing his film, and I had the impression that if I had barred the door from allowing other enthusiasts the opportunity to chat with him, we could have spent the rest of the day obsessing over every little detail of Parasite. As is, our talk primarily focuses on his obsession with class and whether or not he’s said all there is to say on the matter. I’m guessing the answer is “No,” even though I couldn’t get him to state such a thing firmly. Plus, we talk monsters.

Here is our conversation in full:

A lot of your films tackle class, but Parasite feels like a culmination of everything that has come before. Have you now said all there is to say on that matter, or are we going to see class return to your movies in the future?

It does feel like I’m lit it up on fire. Like when you use a magnifying glass to burn a tiny dot on the paper? It feels like I did that with class in this film. I didn’t burn up the entire world, but I did it for very specific points.

Parasite seems to specifically speak to the lack of relatability between the two classes. They don’t speak the same language. Do you believe that the differences between classes can be resolved through your art and your activism? Or are we just screwed?

Ultimately, it’s about not crossing the line, regardless of whether it’s artificial or natural. There is this line that you really can’t ignore, no matter how hard you try. It’s already there. To cross the line comes with a certain price that you have to pay. And ultimately, it leads to tragedy.

You really see that with the ending of the film. It’s a sad moment when [SPOILER REDACTED] says that [SPOILER REDACTED], but as the audience, you already feel it without a voiceover that’s explaining everything. And so, even after the film, there is this sense of fear and sadness that this will continue on in the future. We really won’t be able to resolve this gap. And that fear is the final sort of immersion.

What’s your feeling regarding spoilers with a film like this one? You didn’t give too much away there, but you’re speaking directly to the film’s emotional climax.

So at Cannes, because it was before the release in France and Korea, I did ask reporters to refrain from mentioning the second half of the film. And since the film hasn’t been released in the US yet, I still feel all the same way. But you know, this is a great opportunity to meet and just sort of talk about this film. So I would like to talk about everything, but please, you know, be careful when you write — write up everything we can talk about.

Okay. All right. I’ll be good. So, do you believe you’re haunted by the issue of class? Again, you return to the subject quite often.

I first came up with this particular idea about the rich and the poor when I was working on the post-production of Snowpiercer and I was already engrossed in similar themes at the time. Of course, that’s not just me, there is Us by Jordan Peele and Shoplifters by Hirokazu Koreeda. So a lot of contemporary artists are exploring similar themes about the gap between rich and poor. I think that’s a very natural process. We all want to discuss and explore the times that we can.

Parasite is more grounded than your past few films. There is no creature or supernatural event at play, but the film still manages to be just as terrifying, if not more terrifying, because it does feel like a situation without escape. 

Thank you for that comment. Because in this film you don’t really see a monster on screen. Unlike The Host or even in the Snowpiercer, where we have this perpetual engine that the narrative propels forward towards. That engine is the monster in that film, but with Parasite, you don’t have to see a monster on screen. That’s where the true fear comes from. The rich family, they’re not the villains; they aren’t really the villains of the story. But then the film heads towards this calamity. I think you can ask the question of why does that happen without the presence of this monster. I think that’s why we feel more scared and frustrated because you don’t see the cause with your eyes.

Even the use of the word Parasite as the title of the film is a bit misleading. A parasite is not responsible for the situation it is in. The parasite cannot survive without some kind of host. When did that word spring into your mind?

First, the working title for this project was Décalcomanie, which is this French term regarding how one pattern can be transferred atop another pattern like a decal. That was the title when I dealt with the families on an equal level and put them on this equal stance. I then changed the story so that we follow the perspective of the poor family more. The camera moves with them instead, and we feel like we’re infiltrating this house together. That’s when the title Parasite came into being. Yes, the word “parasite” has negative connotations, but with this film, the audience is sort of on the side of the so-called parasite. Actually, all the characters in the film, like humanity, is in the gray zone. We cannot divide them into the good and the bad.

But to be honest, my interest and sympathy lie slightly more with the poor family. I want them to succeed in infiltrating this house and I want to go with them as they enter this world. So you really see these nerdy and lovable characters who commit bad things but you can’t completely hate. I think that’s sort of the dangerous charm that all genre films have.

What’s feeding your creative energy right now? Where do you find your inspiration? Are you an avid film watcher, or reader? Are comics your addiction?

It all comes from anxiety! I draw and create because I’m an anxious person! I have a lot of issues.

Parasite opens in select theaters on October 11th.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)