Bong Joon-Ho and Song Kang-Ho discuss their Palme d’Or winner Parasite at Locarno Film Festival
Director Bong Joon-Ho and his longtime collaborator, the actor Song Kang-Ho, were both in attendance at Locarno Film Festival, off the back of their Palme d’Or win for Parasite in Cannes. The film is a study of class in South Korea and marries together Bong’s techniques of comic and dramatic populist cinema with his urgent political treatment of contemporary society.
Is Parasite a metaphor for Korean society today just as Snowpiercer is for the plight all humans are in?
Bong Joon-Ho: You can see very specific Korean characteristics in Korean characters and Korean situations. However, I think the basic background of the themes of the films is universal. It’s about the wealthy and the poor, similar to Snowpiercer, which is a sci-fi film and an action film so it’s much more immediate and has more sci-fi elements in terms of its structure. However, the difference with Parasite is that it is much more ordinary and you have a much more practical sense of people’s everyday lives. So the texture and the feel of the film are very different in that sense.
How does Parasite speak to Burning, a film by another Korean director Lee Chang-dong? They use different perspectives on a similar idea: that there’s a wide social gap and its terrible consequences. Is it because this particular moment is strong in South Korea or is it a reflection of a longer period of time?
Bong: It’s a polarisation of extremes. That’s one way of putting it – it’s not only seen in Korea but in Europe and internationally. You can see it in other directors like Ken Loach. As all filmmakers, you are preoccupied with what is going on in your current society and you can’t help but make a commentary on it naturally. In the last few decades Korea has become an incredibly wealthy country since the historical events of 25th June and incense, but also consequently the gap has widened within the country not only in terms of wealth but also psychologically and emotionally. This is also very similar phenomena that you can see in other countries as well. For example, Hirokazu Kore-eda is dealing with similar themes in the Japanese film Shoplifters.
How would you, Song Kang-Ho, describe the way Bong directs you and how would you, Bong, describe the way Song acts?
Song Kang-Ho: Director Bong is incredibly famous in Korea and he is often described as incredibly nuanced and subtle and very thorough in his way of working. However his best capacity is as an artist and what really evokes a huge amount of respect is not his technical capabilities, but that for not even one second does he let go of the explorations that we all have about life and the times that we live in and this gets naturally absorbed and expressed as it manifests in his films. It’s incredibly wonderful and gives us a real sense of achievement.
Bong: As you can see when I’m making a film I don’t think of it as me directing actors, I’m just entering [Song’s] world, his universe as he already exists. You can already see that he has a very unique rhythm and tempo that I keep in mind when I’m writing the script that he’s going to play. He already has his unique sort of nuances that are very individual to him, so for me I’m simply entering the vast universe that actor Song occupies and that’s how I think about it when I’m preparing the films with him.
In The Host is your vision of life; it’s dramatic and only dramatic. In the Parasite you have comedy also. Why is The Host presented differently to Parasite?
Bong: Regardless of the genre of the film sense of humour is like air, it just naturally follows when I’m making films. However, at the end of Parasite, as you’ve mentioned, there is a very painstaking and bitter portrayal, almost a pessimistic reality, and Parasite was about showing the reality as it is around us and therefore this necessitated an honest approach. So rather than through a cinematic device offering some big hope of an ending, even if it does seem despairing, I think to share and express the honest feelings was much more important and respectful to the audiences.
Could you tell us a little bit about how that moment of winning the Palme d’Or felt for you? How emotional was it?
Bong: I went completely blank when I was sitting there, but actor Song was sitting next to me so he can describe a lot better what that moment was like.
Song: So it was my third time being there where I have won myself. Previously I was there with Secret Sunshine and I thought it would be familiar being back. However, this time because I had so many moments where I felt that Parasite may not be named, when it did happen it almost felt like a dream and it was, in fact, quite overwhelming.
Parasite was pulled from a Chinese festival for “technical reasons”. What do you think the censors found so provocative?
Bong: We don’t know! [laughter] I’m sure the censors have their own logic and principles. We actually have a Chinese distributor for Parasite. It has been formally acquired so I’m sure it’s going to be released one day in China. In terms of international relations between Korea and China, what it’s going to look like in the future I really don’t know.
For Song, many characters in your work are masks of a funny, melancholic mixture, in particular the taxi driver of A Taxi Driver or King Yeongjo in The Throne, and now in Parasite. They speak to one another. What is the common thread between these characters? Is this an incarnation of a figure in Korean society?
Song: It may only look that way. In our own lives, in real life, we have comedy and tragedy that coexist and I think the characters that I play aren’t deliberately manifestations that reflect socio-political issues. The focus for me through films is what message we are conveying and what is the most precise way to show this, and then naturally we have characters with laughter and tears and various feelings that emerge.
I read that you never trained as a professional actor. How big is the impact of improvisation in your performance? Where do you take the inspiration for portraying your characters?
Song: I don’t think through systematic education that you one hundred percent excavate your capabilities as an actor and your feelings as an actor. It’s not purely through education, but the way to really draw out your latent capabilities is through exploring oneself continuously and not letting go of that pursuit. That really develops your feelings and capabilities as an actor.
Bong, how important is it for you to have an actor who you know so well, compared to working with new actors? In Parasite you have a lot of actors that you have never worked with before, so how do they compare?
Bong: Working with familiar and new actors both has their challenges. Working with actors that I have worked on two, three, four films, like with actor Song, can be familiar. It’s something that I know and can feel confident in but it’s important not to therefore settle, and to continually have new challenges and continue to experiment, which is something that I often deliberate on. The character in Parasite for actor Song is very different from the detective he played in Memories of Murder or the character Namgoong Minsoo in Snowpiercer, so the starting point may be the same but the outcome is very different and you arrive at a completely different place. So you can think of it as you depart from the same train station, but arrive at different destinations each time and therefore you have to devise and plan different train tracks together.
You won in Cannes with Parasite, but you worked with Netflix and in Cannes they aren’t interested in Netflix. What do you think about this situation? Do you think it’s possible to work with Netflix and work with Cannes in your position?
Bong: Personally this is something that has just been reaffirmed while making Parasite: films are best watched in the cinema. And of course, it’s a very good way to watch films and ultimately Cannes and Netflix need to reach a compromise as Venice has, in that Cannes needs to be much more open with what they accept. But Netflix also needs to be more flexible in terms of being able to release more in cinemas or have screenings earlier. Ultimately, both need to reach a compromise.
The core ethical questions in the film are “where is evil?” and “where is right?”. What happens at the end, while unrealistic, is the consequence of this assumption about society. Is this true?
Bong: The film is saying that nobody is one hundred percent good or evil, and all characters have a bit of both and are in the middle grey area. However, the end of the film is an extreme tragedy and that’s what the film was trying to draw attention to – that despite not having a pure villain it all ends in this very frightening tragedy. So that enabled us to take the story there, and in retrospect I think that’s what the film wanted to comment on about our current times.
Do you feel more pressure since you won the Palme d’Or, and could it somehow block your inspiration?
Bong: For Parasite I’d already been preparing before Snowpiercer and before Okja – the preparation stage for films always overlaps in this way. So currently I’m already writing the script for two Korean projects that I’ve been preparing and I started that prior to Parasite and I’m just continuing that process of preparation. So I’m just following my usual flow of working and trying not to feel much pressure about it.
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Parasite does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Locarno Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Locarno Film Festival website here.