Every week, the film industry offers a fresh slap to the face. Between the increasing dominance of mindless franchise product and the erosion of substantive films made for discerning audiences, it is difficult to feel hopeful about stepping into the dark of a cinema – as wondrous and transformative an experience as modern life affords.
But this past weekend, salvation reared its head in New York and Los Angeles, where a new film smashed box-office records. The unlikely culprit: Parasite, a small-scale South Korean drama with no special effects to speak of and zero sequel or spinoff potential to tempt skeptical audiences. Thanks to audience word-of-mouth and rapturous reviews culled from the film-festival circuit, Parasite earned an average of more than US$128,000 in each of the three theatres it screened, an unheard of figure for a foreign-language film, especially one unable to boast a high-concept narrative or internationally renowned star.
Parasite does, however, have one semi-known quantity to boast of: writer and director Bong Joon-ho. Arthouse-attuned moviegoers will recognize the name from his early Seoul-based dramas Mother and Memories of Murder, while anyone with a Netflix subscription will recall his genre-crossing satire Okja, or perhaps his politically charged sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer. But for anyone not yet familiar with Bong, Parasite is ready and eager to infect your consciousness and soul, quickly turning you into an eager host for all things Bong.
Following the messy intersection of two modern Seoul families – one clan destitute and scheming for a better life, the other perched comfortably and ignorantly at the upper crust of society – Parasite is exhilarating, thrilling, furious and deeply upsetting. It is also, and here’s where things get tricky, extraordinarily surprising, with its story pivoting on a huge twist that arrives one-third through. All of which is to say: Bong hopes you see Parasite, before Parasite becomes inescapable.
“Thankfully, everyone has so far been really co-operative with keeping the spoilers to themselves. I’ve seen families eating out in Seoul, talking about the film, but once they discover there are people among them who haven’t seen it, they got up and left,” says Bong, 50. “People are really protective of this film.”
It is the opening weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival, and Bong seems deeply exhausted. The director has been discussing – and, well, not discussing – the implications of Parasite’s twist since this past May, when the film had its world premiere at Cannes, bowling over critics and capturing the film festival’s coveted Palme d’Or. Somehow, as the film has since travelled to Telluride and Toronto (where it would go on to win second runner-up for TIFF’s People’s Choice Award), Parasite’s big reveal has been preserved, a testament to either audiences’ newfound ability to keep something special to themselves in an era of instant spoiler-y Twitter tidal waves, or the sheer power that the film carries. Likely both.
“The film has been released in several countries now, and I’ve begun to see people diving into it as if it were a game – discussing the details, the foreshadowing of the twist, the symbolism in the film,” Bong says, “but no one is spoiling it. Mostly everyone, at least in the Korean online community, are talking about poverty and their own experiences. And how it’s actually worse than it seems in the movie.”
And Parasite makes life on South Korea’s lower rung look absolutely awful. Bong introduces the Kim family – Parasite’s quasi-protagonists – as sympathetic bottom-feeders, with the foursome occupying an overcrowded basement apartment where the toilet is faulty, the WiFi must be leeched from neighbouring businesses and the air is thick with either the scent of drunkards’ urine or the debilitating fog of street-level fumigation. Patriarch Kim Ki-taek (Bong regular Song Kang-ho) is desperate and clever in equal measure, but cannot seem to imagine a world even one step higher. Until, that is, his son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), sneakily scores a tutoring job for the son of wealthy tech entrepreneur Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun). Over the course of about two hours, fortunes are changed, lives are upended, and the class tensions of South Korea – or anywhere in the world, really – are stretched till they snap.
”As Korea went through the Korean War and the military dictatorships, we’ve become a very developed and rich country,” Bong explains. “But despite the growth, the gap between the rich and the poor has only widened. As the country over all seems wealthy and extravagant, there are still so many people who are saying, ‘Why are we still struggling?’ That sense of inferiority and loss, it’s felt. And it’s not just emotional, it’s physical.”
In typical Bong fashion – reminiscent of how Okja’s zany corporate satire comes equipped with a too-bizarre-for-words Tilda Swinton or how The Host’s family melodrama is backgrounded by a good old-fashioned monster hunt – Parasite’s central themes are delivered in a blessedly shocking manner. The Kim family’s slow invasion of the Parks is tightly controlled dark comedy until Bong flips the story on its head to produce a shocking and sickening tragedy. As his film’s title suggests – who is the real bloodsucker here, the Kims or the Parks? – Bong doesn’t so much upend expectations as he dares you to forever abandon yours.
The film also marks a surprising, if perhaps inevitable, return for Bong to his home country. After spending the past half-decade working if not exactly in then explicitly for Hollywood with Snowpiercer and Okja, Parasite finds Bong returning to a more familiar country and language.
“I tend to improvise a lot on set, so it’s adjusting dialogue and suggesting new ideas, so it was great to not need a translator this time, and being able to have fun with my actors,” Bong says. “But a lot of the joy this time came from not coming back to Korea, but to coming back to films of this size and scale. Working on Parasite was like working on Mother or Memories of Murder. Smaller, controlled, comfortable.”
Part of the comfort comes from having actor Song Kang-ho around once again. Although the Korean star had a supporting role in Snowpiercer, the full weight of Parasite rests on Song’s sizable shoulders – a task he carries with the dedication and commitment familiar to anyone who has seen him blaze the screen in such Korean hits as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Thirst. His Parasite patriarch, at once beaten down and invigorated by a world that wants nothing to do with him, is one of the more complex and memorable characters that audiences of any culture will encounter this year.
“It’s not as if there’s a special nerve on the back heel of Song’s foot that’s connected to my finger, but sometimes it does feel as if we have that connection,” Bong says of his relationship with his frequent collaborator. “We don’t talk a lot on set – we don’t discuss the character for hours – but I think Song, as an actor, instinctively understands what I want to say with my script, and what we need to show with a particular scene. There’s never been a time when I’ve disagreed with a decision in his performance.”
As Parasite begins to creep further into North America – it opens in Toronto this Friday, before expanding into more Canadian theatres in November – Bong is faced with a sort of Bong-esque dilemma: Should he trust that the typical hopes for a film of his pedigree and provenance will prevail, i.e., that the film will get Academy Award attention in the Best International Film category? Or should he prepare for an upending of his own expectations, and find Parasite instead nominated in the mainstream Best Picture slot, alongside Hollywood’s finest? In a tiny way, the film’s fate is in his hands.
“Song and I have been members of the [Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] for the past five years, now that the Academy is trying to increase the diversity of its membership. So this year, we talked about, ‘Oh, should we vote for Parasite?’ ” Bong says with a laugh. “Is it embarrassing? Is it illegal? But anyway, it’s a secret vote.”
And secrets are Bong’s specialty. He’ll keep his, so long as you keep Parasite’s.
Parasite opens Oct. 18 in Toronto.
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