There has been much understandable misery about the lack of diversity in awards season. Few female directors have scored nominations. Actors of colour are doing less well. That chatter has slightly obscured the miraculous assent of Bong Joon Ho's Parasite. When the Korean film – a social satire wrapped up in a breakneck farce – won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, few seriously reckoned it would score with American awards juries. They didn't pay much attention to Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters. They didn't put glory the way of Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, and that was in bleeding English.
Yet here we are. Parasite has scored six Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. It is the first film to win best ensemble from the Screen Actors Guild. It has made more at the US box office than Jojo Rabbit or Cats (yeah, I know, but still). As we speak, Bong and Sharon Choi, his interpreter, are still recovering from their appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Show.
Hello, Sharon! A filmmaker herself, she is now wrestling with an even less likely class of fame. She's been at more microphones than Scarlett Johansson this season. It must have come as a shock.
“Yes, it has. Thank you,” she says before going on to deliver the most impressive stream of unbroken translations I can remember experiencing.
An endlessly amusing man, as happy to take the mickey out of himself as expound on psycho-social subtexts, Bong looked as if he was having a ball on Fallon.
“I can say this because my publicist is not here,” he says (through Sharon). “I did not want to do Jimmy Fallon. I was so scared. She said she would kill me if I didn’t go on that show. Ha ha! It’s a joke. She is right over there. She is the world’s best publicist. I just try to enjoy it as much as I can. It’s great to get Parasite out there – so people can enjoy a subtitled film.”
How has all this happened? Parasite is the first Korean film to receive a nomination at the Oscars for even best foreign language picture (recently retitled to “best international picture”). Yet the bookies now have Bong’s movie as third favourite – ahead of The Irishman and Joker – for best film. It seems scarcely possible.
“I am not really sure I know,” Bong says. “A lot of people say it’s universal because it’s about rich and poor. It’s about modern capitalism. But a lot of films and TV address that. I think fundamentally it’s to do with how unpredictable the story is. The audience is I hope on the edge of their seats – never knowing where the story is going next. We really tried not to spoil the second half. We made sure that distributors revealed nothing from the later part of the film.”
He’s not wrong. There is real anger at social inequality here, but the gorgeous machinery of the plot is at least as important in breaking down barriers. The story concerns an impoverished family that cunningly insinuates itself into the house of a bland, bourgeois couple. As the scam becomes ever more lavish, our sympathies slip backwards and forwards. Then something happens that Bong would rather you discover for yourself.
About halfway through the press screening at Cannes, the famously cynical audience spontaneously applauded one particularly delicious narrative paradiddle. This has never happened before. It was like hearing a grumpy teenager complimenting their parent. Few were surprised when Parasite took the Palme.
"I definitely didn't expect it," Bong says. "There were so many films by masters I admired that year – Ken Loach, the Dardennes, Terrence Malick – and I didn't think I'd win. When Alejandro Iñárritu announced the winner our lead actor punched me so hard – out of sheer joy – that I was in too much pain to remember much about it."
It hardly matters, but I wonder if western audiences are missing any nuances in the Korean class system. It does feel as if this story could be effectively translated to Foxrock or the Upper East Side (though please don’t).
“I think, because we all live in this age of capitalism, the incidents depicted in the film are pretty universal,” he says. “The way class works in Korea is pretty similar. But there are some differences – the Taiwanese cupcake shops for instance. In Korea a lot of people who were recently laid off set up small stores. There are so many fried chicken shops as a result of that. It’s a battle for these places to stay alive. Taiwanese cupcake shops in particular were a fad. But because fashions change many failed and, for Korean people, just hearing about Taiwanese cupcakes brings back memories of that time. I don’t know if there is an equivalent in Ireland.”
I think there may be.
Bong’s cinema is hard to classify – Memories of Murder from 2003 was an epic crime tale, Mother from 2000 was a sub-Victorian melodrama – but there has always had a social dimension to the work. His 2006 movie The Host, in which a giant monster emerged from the Han River, became the highest grossing South Korean film ever. Like Godzilla before it, The Host addressed ecological issues, but it also showed concern for the excluded in Korean society. No Marxist critic will easily resist a parse of Parasite (though a few will surely find it ideologically lacking). One cannot help but wonder if Bong calls himself a socialist.
“I am somebody who prioritises original freedom,” he says. “So many people around the world are going through this polarisation and alienation. It’s very difficult to find political parties who have absorbed all that. I am doubtful if we can find a solution for those issues within the current system. That is a testament to how complicated these times are. Who are our opponents? It’s hard to find the political groups that really represent your demands. Parasite reflects this, even though it doesn’t have a particular political position. The way it portrays the younger generation of Korea is a testament to how turbulent these times are.”
Born in 1969, Bong Joon Ho comes from a family of intellectuals. His father is a graphic designer. His maternal grandfather was the distinguished novelist Park Taewon. He has admitted that his parents weren't keen on him working in film and he initially studied sociology (tellingly perhaps) before moving on to the Korean Academy of Film Arts. We now realise that he was part of a golden generation that includes such contemporaries as Park Chan Wook, Kim Ki Duk and (a little older) Lee Chang Dong. Until the turn of the century or so, Korean cinema was, even among cinephiles, something of an obscure interest outside the peninsula. Look at where we are now. No film in a language other than English has ever won best picture at the Oscars – nothing French, Japanese, Italian or Chinese – but Korea now stands on the brink. What happened? Can a small nation such as Ireland learn anything from their example?
Parasite is set to become a signature film for an era of social flux and economic uncertainty
“Even among ourselves we wonder why Korean cinema exploded,” Bong says. “We joke that maybe in the late ’80s the government put something in the water that encouraged cinematic talent. But it really is hard to figure out. Maybe outsiders can work it out. It is difficult to get a full picture of the forest when you are in the middle of it.”
That success has nudged Korean filmmakers towards the western world. Bong had a famously tricky time in the aftermath of his English-language debut Snowpiercer. The epic science-fiction yarn, starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Jamie Bell was acquired by the Weinstein Company and a tussle subsequently developed between distributor and filmmaker. It was said that Harvey Weinstein wanted 20 minutes cut. The release was delayed by two years. Bong is diplomatic about the disagreement.
“That’s all in the past now,” he says. “Ultimately I was able to release the film in my director’s cut in North America. I have made seven films and I have managed to release them all in a director’s cut. So, I consider myself a lucky filmmaker. Snowpiercer was released in all countries except the UK and Ireland. And I think there is a complicated story behind that. I don’t even know why.”
He seems to have had a happy time making Okja, a weird ecological fantasy, for Netflix, but he was unfortunate to get caught up in the streamer's infamous dustup with Cannes in 2017. Having allowed the film into competition, the festival got lambasted by the French industry. The Netflix logo was booed at the start of Okja and Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories. Both directors had to field endless questions about the "death of cinema" at press conferences.
"That was 2017 and since then Netflix has become more flexible," he says. "I talked to Noah Baumbach about all that then. Noah was able to maintain a great relationship with them for Marriage Story."
At any rate, Bong survived and prospered. Parasite is set to become a signature film for an era of social flux and economic uncertainty. There is talk of a TV series. A monochrome version of the feature in being prepared for release. Meanwhile, fans ponder that terrific title. Are the rich the parasites? Does the word refer to the socially excluded characters who play on their gullibility? Will Bong tell us?
He chortles slyly and wags his wise head.
“The answer is me!” he says. “I am the mimetic parasite working off the brains of audience members. And they will never be able to get rid of me.”