Warning: This story contains mild spoilers for Parasite.
When the director Bong Joon-Ho was a college student in Seoul, he landed a job tutoring the child of a wealthy family. He only lasted two months: “I never really helped the kid study—I was more interested in having fun with him,” he recalls with a laugh. “They fired me right away when they wanted to.”
This unceremonious dismissal is nothing compared to the bloody turn that ignites Parasite, Bong’s latest film, which arrives in theaters on Friday. The movie centers on a down-and-out family that lives in a dingy, underground apartment, frequented by stink bugs and a drunkard prone to public urination. When the son is hired by an affluent family as a tutor, he orchestrates a series of lies to secure various jobs for his parents and sister across their spacious house. As the two families grow closer together, they realize how much money dictates every aspect of life, from attitude to accent to smell—and disaster ensues.
Parasite won the top prize at Cannes, has a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and will approach awards season with considerable momentum. “Bong sails beyond good enough, devising a twist upon a twist and connecting one scene to the next with ingenious precision,” Stephanie Zacharek wrote in her TIME review. “It’s impossible to figure out where Parasite is headed.”
The film is not Bong’s first story of class warfare. Snowpiercer (2013) portrays an uprising among humanity’s last survivors on a speeding train. “The original graphic novel [Le Transperceneige, which Snowpiercer was adapted from] was published in the ’80s, and now we have Parasite in 2019,” Bong said through a translator, while on a publicity tour for the movie in New York. “I think it’s meaningful that even after three or four decades, and probably over the next century to come, we’re still talking about this era of capitalism.”
While the fundamental conflict of Parasite is transmutable—Bong called it a “universal story about rich and poor”—the film is also gaspingly specific to present-day South Korea and its hardships. The specter of nuclear war from North Korea—which motivated families with means to build underground bunkers—looms large, as does flooding, which caused catastrophic damage to the country in 2011 and 2014. Bong even alludes to the economic collapse of Taiwanese cupcake shops, which many Koreans invested in heavily before they went out of business. “A lot of people filed for bankruptcy: it was a kind of trauma to Korean society,” he says.
Bong also drew inspiration from his personal history. He grew up in a different traumatic era of the country, when Seoul was under the command of a military dictatorship and tear gas wafted through the streets. When he stepped into his aforementioned tutee’s house during college, he was taken aback by one particular symbol of excess: “I remember just being so shocked to see a private sauna in a home,” Bong says. The wealthy family of Parasite, likewise, owns a sauna in its labyrinthine mansion.
Bong, too, could surely afford a sauna by now. He’s become one of the most successful directors in Korean history, with films like Memories Of Murder and The Host, and he successfully crossed over to the United States and other international markets with Snowpiercer and Okja. The transition from rich to poor is a major theme in Parasite, with one character comparing money to an iron: “It smooths out all the wrinkles.”
But Bong still feels a kinship with the ethos of the working class. “Regardless of the success or the awards, my life has been pretty much the same the past 20 years,” he says. “I think of ideas, I have a hard time writing the script, I storyboard, I shoot, I go into post.”
“Making films is a difficult job, but I just do it because I’ve never tried anything else and it’s too late to change my job,” he says with a small smile. “So I don’t really have any opportunities to consider my success or the weight of the iron. I just feel like I’m a factory that’s constantly moving on and on.”
While Bong has made a specialty of creating films about wealth disparity, he’s far from the only director to explore the subject in recent years. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Jordan Peele’s Us have all recently explored poverty under capitalism in similar ways. Most notably, Us shares a startling number of commonalities with Parasite: they each focus on the clash between two mirrored families of four, one privileged and one oppressed; they sow a contrast between large, airy houses and seedy underground spaces; and are informed by house invasion tropes and horror genre frameworks.
Bong finished Parasite in March, the same month that Us was released, so he never had a chance to be influenced by the film. But he was taken aback when he saw its trailer, because it featured the familiar image of decalcomania, a technique in which an image is created on paper and then folded over to form a doubled, symmetrical work of art. “I remember being very surprised because that was actually the working title of Parasite, around three or four years ago,” he said. (He says that decalcomania is extremely common in art classes in Korea; perhaps not coincidentally, two major K-pop artists—BTS’ Jungkook and Mamamoo—also have songs with the same title.)
While Parasite and Us share many eerie similarities, Bong is unperturbed. “It’s not as if these contemporary directors and I intentionally formed an alliance—it just happened naturally,” he says. “I think that’s great: I wouldn’t call it solidarity, but it shows we all sympathize with the current climate.”
Parasite and Us also both erupt into harrowing violence, something that is far from new for Bong. Bloodshed has played a central role in many of his films, including The Host and Memories of Murder. (On an unrelated note, the serial killer that the latter film was based on confessed to his crimes earlier this month after three decades. “It’s bringing back a lot of memories and some of the struggles I had back then,” he says of the news.) Violence in film has been the subject of a heated dialogue over the past month thanks to Todd Phillip’s Joker, in which the disaffected lead character embarks on a series of murderous sprees. Many have condemned the film based on the concern that it portrays violence in a glorified light and could lead to copycat crimes.
But Bong feels that, for the most part, these criticisms are unfounded. “I don’t really think that films lead to violence in the real world—I think it’s the other way around,” he says. “Films, novels and all creative works, they always reflect the violence that exists in the world, but a beat late. If we are concerned and anxious that the violence depicted onscreen will influence our real world, I think it means that our current reality is that capricious and dangerous.”
Systematic oppression, compassionless communities, global warming, serial killers: Bong’s movies are driven by unrelentingly dark and fatalistic themes borne out of current realities. But when asked about the dystopian qualities of 2019, Bong demurs: “I wouldn’t want to define anything in this current world as dystopian.” He points to how he closes the film—with Choi Woo-shik (who plays the tutor Ki-Woo) singing a song with lyrics of resilience, that Bong himself wrote. “The lyrics don’t portray this great sense of optimism,” he says, “but they do feature a sliver of hope.”