You Won’t Be Able To Stop Thinking About The Plot Twist In ‘Parasite’, 2019’s Strangest Film
Bong Joon-ho discusses directing this year's wildest film -- and why he doesn't want you to spoil it.
Save for a few lines, we mostly talk via translator, but there’s one word director Bong Joon-ho repeatedly slips into English while discussing his newest film, Parasite: “spoiler”.
Since its debut at Cannes Film Festival this May, Joon-ho has asked both viewers and critics to not give away too much of the plot. There’s even a Marvel-eque hashtag, #DontSpoilParasite. All you really to know is that Parasite is an ultra-dark comedy-horror about a poor Korean family who, one by one, deceitfully worm their way into working for one incredibly wealthy family.
The other important fact is that Parasite won Cannes’ coveted Palme d’Or this May, with critics praising it as an utterly cutting examination of class, and the director’s best film yet. This came as a pleasant surprise, as Joon-ho’s last Cannes showing, 2017’s Okja, was controversial — unfortunately, not for any actually interesting reasons.
As one of Netflix’s first distributed films to compete at Cannes, Okja’s inclusion raised question over the streaming company’s role in film festivals — when its logo popped up, the audience unanimously booed. The film, Joon-ho’s second in English, arrived on Netflix soon after.
As a result, Okja‘s arguably his most well-known film (“Oh, that ‘super pig’ one with Tilda Swinton?”), but with Parasite, Joon-ho has returned to Korean-language films and theatre releases. And while he’s known for wild, often bloody genre films with big twists, Parasite could be his wildest yet.
When we meet in a hotel room a few streets away from a Sydney Film Festival screening (where Parasite also won the Official Competition prize of $60,000), Joon-ho clears the air with a line he’s probably used to breaking out in English interviews: “The film’s fucking strange, right?”.
‘Wow, This Is So Metaphorical’
The family at the centre of Parasite are impoverished.
They live below ground in a small, dilapidated apartment, and when we meet them, are struggling to find work. But by luck, the family’s son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-skik) is handed a job as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family.
Watching the family subsequently trick the Parks into hiring them all one-by-one is diabolical fun, even if it means framing the Park’s workers to get them fired. But that’s only the start of it; like many of Joon-ho’s films, there’s a twist.
“Something very unexpected happens and that leads towards the end of the story,” Joon-ho says. “The latter part of the film is more close to the theme of the whole film. So I think it’s a big surprise but it’s also a realisation…. All these unexpected misfortunes, it’s something that happens in reality.”
Whether they’re horrors, sci-fi or crime dramas, Joon-ho’s films have repeatedly questioned the ways in which class divides (and, more largely, capitalism) force individuals into morally abhorrent behaviour — to both gain power, and to keep it. But Parasite is distinctly fuelled by a sense of injustice at South Korea’s staggering inequality.
That’s why spoiling Parasite wouldn’t just ruin a fun surprise, but a purposefully aggressive one. It as if the twist tries to shock us into realising how little we know about the structures and pain that hold up our world. Because of this, Joon-ho says he didn’t want to simply paint the Parks as one-dimensional or evil, even if they are carelessly cruel or mean to their workers.
“When you watch films or movies, there’s a lot of stereotypical depictions about the rich people,” he says. “[Normally, you see] they’re greedy, or they bully poor people. You can see a lot of descriptions of rich people like that, but I wanted more of a real feel about it. There are actually no villains in this film.”
“The poor family, they commit some crimes, but they’re not devils, they just try to make ends meet. Even the rich people, they are very nice people, and they are very sophisticated. To be realistic, there are no angels or devils. They’re all in the grey zone and I thought that was more appealing because it’s more realistic.”
“There are no devils [in Parasite], but there is tragedy, there’s an explosion of blood.”
In its target, Parasite‘s been compared widely to two 2018 critical darlings from Asia; Korean director Lee Chang-Dong’s film Burning, adapted from a Murakami short story, and Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, which won 2018’s Palme d’Or. Each, in its own way, targets the way class erodes at our morals, and builds a quiet resentment — one which is ripe to burst. “There are no devils [in Parasite],” says Joon-ho, “but there is tragedy, there’s an explosion of blood.” He doesn’t mind the comparisons.
“The basic difference is mine is a genre film,” he says. “The directors Kore-eda Hirokazu and Lee Chang-dong are masters of films, but they don’t really make genre films… [Parasite] has its own very unique excitement and energy in it.”
While Parasite‘s depiction of Korean society is very particular, Joon-ho notes an American film it keeps getting compared to, Jordan Peele’s horrific Us.
He tells me that when that film was first teased via a Rorschach ink-blot poster, it was a shock. Even though it doesn’t appear directly in the film, the blots were an image central to writing Parasite. The two films tackle similar ideas — the miss-placed rage underneath inequality, a desire to not destroy a system, but replace those at the top — by different means. For Joon-ho, it’s the obvious topic of the era.
“It’s quite interesting that there are similar films in different corners of the world happening at the same time,” he says. “I think to me that says that all these creatives, they talk about the era that they live in. They cannot be free from the era that they live in.”
Parasite is in cinemas now, distributed by Madman Entertainment.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.