A MUTATED monster created by formaldehyde illegally disposed into the Han River, a “parasite” family living in the basement of an affluent household after failing their Taiwanese Castella business—Bong Joon-ho’s (Class of ‘88, Dept. of Sociology) films seem to be standing on the line between reality and imagination. The entire world can be a film set for Bong, and it is not uncommon to have wild ideas running in your head after watching Bong’s films. He grapples with the blind spots of our society that we do not or pretend not to know. In an exclusive interview with The Yonsei Annals, Bong narrates his past, experiences and perspectives as a director, as well as his plans for the future. Welcome to the abyss of Bong, where our lives become plots and stories become scenarios.
Winning at the Cannes
Annals: You have recently won Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for your recent movie Parasite. Please share your thoughts on winning the award.
Bong: I’m still quite confused. It’s been around half a year and I still can’t believe I have won such a prestigious award. I didn’t intend or expect the movie to be this successful, so I wonder even to this day why people enjoy this movie worldwide, including France, Vietnam, and the United States where the movie recently premiered. I do have pride in the overall quality of the movie—the staff, cinematographers, and actors were the best in their field. But just because a movie is of high quality does not guarantee its success; there are many well-made movies that turn out unsuccessful. So, I wonder why Parasite got so popular globally and this indeed is a happy concern.
Annals: If you were to pick one reason for the high success of Parasite, what would that be?
Bong: Parasite is explicit. It is about the rich and the poor, but we rarely talk about the discrepancy of wealth in real life. The inequality is out there and to be frank, it is huge, and we feel and face such inequality every day. It may be uncomfortable to deal with such issues upfront, but if I were to make a movie out of it, I wanted to do it well—candidly. During the pre-production stage [of Parasite], many were concerned about the movie’s success. When I was showing the script of Parasite to the production company for the first time, I even told them it is okay to reject the script, that I would fully understand the decision, and that I could look for another company to invest in the production. So, I was surprised when the movie turned out highly successful. Honestly, among the staff, we were hoping to meet the budget at best.
Annals: What is the overarching theme of your movies?
Bong: Honestly, I am not so sure. I have made 7 movies so far; and maybe I will figure out [the overarching theme] after making around 14 movies. I have always made them according to my impulse—stories or pictures that grabbed me were the sources of inspiration. I am not really a person that follows trends. Questions like “What would people like?” or “What is the trend nowadays?” don’t really affect me. I always had a sincere interest or almost an obsession in things that I like, and I did what I wanted to do—this is perhaps my overarching theme.
I think it’s quite hard to link the seven movies under a common theme, but I think in all of my movies, people of vulnerabilities appear. There hasn’t been a case where a superhero appeared in my film. Every main character was vulnerable and had flaws, which is the realistic view of people, really.
Annals: You said that you are not sensitive to trends. Then, where do you get your inspiration from?
Bong: In any interview or film festival, the very first question that reporters ask is “Where does your very first idea originate from?” and it is quite hard for me to answer. For Snowpiercer which is based on an existing piece of work, the source of inspiration is clear. But for most of my movies, I get various ideas from everyday life and one day those ideas get bundled up [into a storyline]. When I was interviewing for The Host, I said that I had seen a creature in the Han River in my high school years. Recollecting the interview now, I think it was half made-up and half illusionary. When you walk out of the forest, there are blades of grass attached to your pants. But you’ll never know when they got attached to your pants. Same goes for my sources of inspiration—you can’t clearly point out where they came from; they were formed by many daily life experiences.
An example that comes to mind is when I went to Mountain Odae with my friends during college. We saw a tourism bus full of middle-aged women. These women were dancing in the bus and they just couldn’t stop. They were having so much fun that from the outside, the bus appeared to be shaking back and forth. That moment lingered in my mind for so long that I used it as the last scene of Mother.
Annals: Did you plan the order of producing your seven movies and do they have a cause and effect relationship?
Bong: It is very complicated to say. It was in 2013 when I agreed with the production company to make Parasite. This was before the completion of Snowpiercer and even before writing a script for Okja. The idea for Snowpiercer came in 2005. It was after Memories of Murder premiered and before the production of The Host began. I was at a comic book café in Hongdae and was mesmerized by the original comic of Snowpiercer. But by then, I had also promised actress Kim Hye-ja to film Mother in 2009, so I decided to film Snowpiercer after that. Another behind story is that during the production of Snowpiercer I thought of a story about pigs (the basic outline of Okja), so as you can see, all of my movies somewhat overlap. I can’t quite say that there is no cause and effect relationship between them. But at the same time, I can’t say that the 5th movie is a reaction to the 4th movie and that the 6th movie is a reaction to the 5th movie.
Annals: So the production of each movie takes much longer than what the audience thinks.
Bong: Yes. I think I plan my movies for too long. Let’s say I finished a movie, took a one-week holiday, and started the production of another movie; then the cause and effect relationship among the movies would be clear. But for my movies, they all overlap. It takes a long time for my works to mature in my head. For instance, with Parasite, it took me 4 months to write the scenario, but it was actually in my head for 4 years. From 2013 to 2017, I prepared and organized the ideas again and again. The same goes for all of my movies.
Annals: Do you decide on an ending before writing the script?
Bong: It depends. There are times when I have the full story planned and start writing the scenario. So in this case, the ending is already decided from the very beginning. Mother was one of those movies. I had this one-sentence-long storyline of a mother attempting to clear the “false” accusation of her son, only to find out that he has in fact committed a fatal crime, which leads her to kill the only witness to protect her son. On the other hand, for Parasite, the only idea that I had in mind was of a four-member family infiltrating through another four-member family. I only had this simple storyline when I started off. So, as I was writing a script, I had no idea what the next ten pages would be like.
Annals: Which work was the most memorable and which work do you have regret for?
Bong: The most memorable one is Parasite since it is the latest one. For a movie that I have regret for... I actually have some form of regret for all of my movies. There were scenes that I wanted to do again for each one, but I couldn’t since the premiere dates had already been decided. I just hope that the next movie won’t have such scenes.
Honestly, I am the harshest critic of my own movies. No matter how merciless and brutal a critic may be towards my movies, they won’t be as bad as I am towards my own works, because I know even the smallest flaws. I am just too embarrassed to go out and tell people.
Annals: What scene are you most satisfied with out of all the scenes you have filmed so far?
Bong: It’s not really about being satisfied, but there is this one scene that I don’t think I can ever film again. It’s the last scene of Mother where the main actress, Kim Hye-ja, walks among the middle-aged women in a tourist bus and the sun slowly sets. That scene was possible due to a complex mixture of momentary coincidences and long arduous preparation. There is a saying, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Even with the same staff and actors, I won’t be able to film that scene again.
Production behind the scenes
Annals: How would you describe yourself as a director? Do you have anything that you are particular about during the filming of your movies?
Bong: I always have a plan; as much as I am a director, I also write the scenario and draw story boards prior to the actual filming, and this allows me to have an entire blueprint of the movie before production. I am fully aware of specific locations as well as the movements of the cameras and the ways actors deliver each and every line. It is as if I have filmed the movie multiple times in my head even before actually filming it on set.
But there are times uncertainties arise even from perfection. Sometimes, I get anxious when everything goes too smoothly as planned. I sometimes get wrapped in this anxiety that I have missed making better scenes because I was so tied to the plans. But I guess I’m not a director who believes in spontaneous plans and decisions on set; I am just too anxious to do that.
Annals: You have been known to strictly follow the designated working hours for your staff and actors. What motivates you to abide by these rules even amidst the tight production schedule?
Bong: While several news articles have reported that Parasite has demonstrated leadership in this new movement of ensuring legal working hours, that is not true at all. It was somewhere between 2015 or 2016 when the Federation of Korean Movie Workers’ Union (FKMWU) established rules on working hours and related rights during film production. Since then, Korean movies produced by major film distributors have been abiding by these regulations—filming while keeping tothe working hours and providing additional wages when overtime work is inevitable. So, it was quite embarrassing to receive public praises for following these rules during the production of Parasite. Maybe I was a bit more particular with working hours as I am very sensitive to having meals on time; even when staff members would insist on filming certain scenes a few more times, I recall running to the food truck immediately when it was time for lunch or dinner.
Annals: What are some of the challenges during the film production that the audience is not aware of?
Bong: For Parasite, around 90% of all scenes were filmed on set; be it the grandeur house of the rich family or the protagonists’ deteriorated house on the semi-basement floor and their neighborhood—they were all built for the movie. This is significant, as it implies that we had complete control over the set’s environment with little external variables. There were no pedestrians or outsiders who could disrupt the production and that might be the reason behind Parasite having little challenges.
I always meticulously prepare for each and every process involved in the production, and make sure that film storyboards are distributed to all staff in advance. So, issues during production mostly arise from external factors. For instance, during the production of Mother when we had to film some scenes in a neighborhood in Busan, there were a lot of strange incidents throughout filming. There were drunk outsiders who would randomly blow whistles, and in worse cases they would physically disrupt the filming. Surprisingly, such incidents did not only happen during the production of Mother. There have been similar instances at least once for every movie and I recall joking around with the staff that these “disrupters” may be part of a national organization as they were simply everywhere. Filming outside the set over which we have little control always subjects us to all sorts of incidents while filming.
College life at Yonsei
Annals: We would like to move onto your days at Yonsei University. What are some of the memories that you can recall back in your student years?
Bong: Being in the class of ’88 in the Dept. of Sociology, I can recall many memories with friends. University offered an opportunity to interact with a lot of individuals with different backgrounds from places like Busan and Jeju with experiences that I had never had. The time spent with such friends and the conversations I shared with them are some of the most cherished memories of mine from my university days.
I also remember that there was once a bookstore with the name “Book of the day,” which closed down in the late 1990s. The bookstore had a big notice board on which individuals could post memos; you have to know that this was the time when mobile phones and pagers were not available. Students would paste memo sheets on the notice board with messages like “Sociology class of ’88 at Baek-du Gal-bi (name of a restaurant).” Upon reading the memo, if you go to Baek-du Gal-bi, you would find students from our department eating or drinking there. It was actually quite funny; if your group decided to do another round of drinking, someone had to run to the bookstore to do that troublesome “update.” I guess back in the days, we wanted to socialize in our ways, and these memories outside school somehow remain vivid in my heart.
Annals: Was there any reason for choosing Yonsei University even though you aspired to become a film director as a student?
Bong: Becoming a film director has been a dream of mine since middle school, yet I did not have the courage to apply for a major in theater and film. The competition for the department of theater and film was close to 50 to 1 back then with requirements for practical examinations, so I was intimidated to even give it a try. It was during this time when I learned that two renowned directors in the South Korean film industry—director Lee Jang-ho and director Bae Chang-ho were not graduates of theater and film. If I recall correctly, director Bae was from Yonsei’s Dept. of Business Admin. and seeing these directors influenced my decision to major in any department within the school of humanities and to participate actively in university clubs to develop my dream to be a director one day.
Annals: Yonsei has been appearing in your film on several occasions, even in the recent movie Parasite, where one of the protagonists forged documents to pretend to be a student of Yonsei. How does Yonsei influence your works as a director?
Bong: The particular school and document didn’t necessarily have to be that of Yonsei, but the design of the symbol was something that I was just too familiar with. Visually speaking, as I was intending to fill the screen with a logo of a school as the protagonist tried to forge the document, I thought that the shield in the Yonsei logo was perfect. Don’t you think that forgery is most fulfilling when the organization or school that you are trying to forge has this authoritative and sophisticated image that visually satisfies you? I just thought that Yonsei’s logo was visually appealing, enough to fill the whole screen during that particular scene.
There are instances where I have filmed scenes on campus. The final scene of A Higher Animal depicts the part where the protagonist becomes a university professor, as the curtain in the lecture hall closes along with the movie’s ending. That particular scene was taken in Yonsei’s Yeonhui Hall. There are several scenes like that filmed on the Yonsei campus, as Yonsei University is definitely somewhere I am familiar with.
The best is yet to come
Annals: What kind of a director do you want to be remembered as?
Bong: It would be great if the movies are remembered instead of the person who made the movies. I hope that the memories of the director slowly fade away as time passes.
Annals: What kind of films do you aim to produce in the future?
Bong: Well, I have tried to create works that others have not tried before: films that do not remind the audience of similar movies. But I think I have had enough of striving for originality after many different attempts across my seven films. In the future, I would like to adventure with films that try to find answers to questions and doubts that I have towards myself.
Annals: This might be a spoiler, but just as you have mentioned that you get inspirations for new projects even during the production of another movie, were there any new inspirations that came to you during the filming of Parasite?
Bong: There were 2 to 3 projects that have been developing in my mind for around 2 to 3 years during the production of Parasite. As usual, I am slowly yet arduously preparing for these new projects. I am currently planning a somewhat unconventional horror film and another project regarding an actual incident that happened in London in 2016.
Annals: What advice would you give to Yonseians who are aspiring to become a film director like yourself?
Bong: I would like to urge those who aspire to be a director to take interest understanding their personal attachments. It should not be a matter of which movies would be well-received among the audience or which movies would be easier to receive external funding for production; always remind yourself with the question, “What is my obsession and what is it that makes me excited the most?”