ENTERTAINMENT

Bong Joon-ho Could Teach Hollywood A Thing Or 4

The director of “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” is an Oscar contender thanks to his new masterpiece, “Parasite."
"Parasite," directed by Bong Joon-ho, opened in theaters Oct. 11.
"Parasite," directed by Bong Joon-ho, opened in theaters Oct. 11.

Bong Joon-ho swears he isn’t exhausted. The 50-year-old director has spent the past two months canvassing North America to promote his newest release, “Parasite,” which makes a strong case for the year’s best movie. From his home in South Korea, Bong has traveled to Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Austin, showered with more praise than anyone so unassuming can ingest.

“I’m doing great,” he said by phone via translator. A telling chuckle followed, and when I pointed out that his laughter might indicate otherwise, Bong chuckled harder.

As foreign titles go, “Parasite” is doing bang-up business: $7.5 million domestically over the past three weeks, and $102 million globally since opening abroad in May. There’s talk of Oscar nominations, perhaps even Best Picture — a prize that has never gone to a non-English film. Last weekend, “Parasite” was playing on 461 screens. This weekend, it will hit 600 screens. Most foreign films are lucky to cross 100.

If Bong is indeed doing great now, imagine how he’ll feel after four more months of awards-season glad-handing. He’s had success before, sure, but even his projects with big-time Hollywood stars — the 2013 dystopian drama “Snowpiercer” (featuring Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris and Tilda Swinton) and the 2017 animal-rights adventure “Okja” (Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yeun, Paul Dano and Tilda Swinton again) — didn’t seem to elicit the widespread fervor that “Parasite” has evoked among Bong disciples.

“Parasite” follows a struggling Seoul family as they con their way into a wealthy clan’s employ, only to discover startling secrets on the other side. What starts as a social comedy becomes a horror movie, a domestic psychodrama and a wistful mystery all wrapped together with exhilarating heft. American audiences don’t often have an appetite for subtitles, but those who discover “Parasite” will be surprised by how much of a crowd-pleaser it is — and by how much Hollywood studios could learn from its sensibilities. The film is special, the type that admirers will remember experiencing for the first time. And the second. Perhaps even the third, fourth and fifth.

Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin and Park So-dam in "Parasite."
Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin and Park So-dam in "Parasite."

At a time when economic inequality ranks among the world’s leading preoccupations, Bong has developed a distinct ability to illustrate the agony and ecstasy of contemporary life. Many directors turn to grayscale and unrelenting seriousness when they want to telegraph something bleak, but Bong understands how humor and elegance can accomplish the same result. To that end, he is transcending the rigid lines that separate an increasingly risk-averse Hollywood from the rest of the film planet. 

Off-screen, Bong is known for his cuddly thatch of black hair. On-screen, his near-singular ability to clothe arty fables in blockbusters’ attire is what sets him apart. During the past 10 to 15 years, the major studios have demonstrated a cynicism about audiences’ eagerness to stomach anything but redundant franchise fare. Bong, meanwhile, is exhibiting a refreshing ability to satisfy market demands and deliver whip-smart escapism that isn’t patronizing.

But that’s easy to say from the outside peering in. For Bong, who has worked steadily since his 2000 debut, “Barking Dogs Never Bite,” any amplified attention is hard to account for.

“I’m not sure why that’s the case, but of course I feel very happy about it,” he said of his current esteem. “I haven’t been able to really analyze what’s going on. Perhaps it’s because ‘Parasite’ is a true story about our lives, and also the story about the gap between rich and poor is something that everyone can sympathize with, no matter which country you’re from.”

One might assume that Bong capitalized on the Spielbergian appeal of “Okja” — his second film to use English, after “Snowpiercer” — to galvanize a follow-up written exclusively in his native tongue. That’s not the case. The concept for “Parasite” came to him in 2013, at which point the wealth gap was inundating Korea and the Occupy Wall Street movement had gone intercontinental. Bong secured initial financing two years before “Okja” entered development. That his profile rose in the interim, including a forthcoming TNT series based on “Snowpiercer,” is a testament to his talent.

Tilda Swinton and Bong Joon-ho on the set of "Okja."
Tilda Swinton and Bong Joon-ho on the set of "Okja."

“The conclusion I’m reaching is that, rather than the language, it’s really about the story and the movie itself,” Bong said. “That’s something that I’m realizing more and more during the process of promoting ‘Parasite.’”

Bong’s international breakthrough dates back to 2007, when his third feature, “The Host,” exploded across Europe, South America and the United States. It was a monster flick with a political bite, satirizing the American military, South Korean bureaucracy and nationalistic racism. From there, offers to direct Hollywood scripts started pouring in — at least one per month, he said in 2010. That tempo has since slowed, as it’s become clear that Bong generates his own material. (He did once come close to saying yes, for a movie that went on to earn Oscar nominations. I promised I wouldn’t disclose the title.)

“I have a great agent who really understands my taste, so the projects that do come to me, they’re great,” he said. “I’ve read some amazing scripts, but even then, I still choose to write my own. That’s a strength and a weakness. I think it’s great for professional directors to direct projects written by other people. I definitely don’t think that’s less valuable than being a writer-director.”

“Parasite,” like “The Host” before it, blurs demarcations between good and bad, hero and villain. The cash-strapped Kim family, who live in a dingy semi-basement apartment, are just as parasitic as the moneyed Park family, whose privilege has rendered them superficial and sophomoric. Class discord runs every which way: The poor don’t take care of others facing worse circumstances, and the rich dupe themselves into thinking employment constitutes generosity.

Bong Joon-ho with the prestigious Palme d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival on May 25, 2019.
Bong Joon-ho with the prestigious Palme d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival on May 25, 2019.

Such dichotomies define Bong’s work, just as the interbreeding between art house and blockbuster has defined how his work is appreciated. When indie filmmakers are plucked to helm franchise behemoths, they’re seen as going commercial — the big corporation come to taint their integrity. But Bong doesn’t like that divide. He’s committed to marrying both halves. Whoever is willing to offer support — Netflix, in the case of “Okja,” or Neon, the relatively young specialty distributor behind “Parasite” — can join Bong’s party.

“I don’t like to separate art house from blockbuster or genre,” he said. “Even within genre, I have this desire not to be categorized. I think that’s where the unique color of my films come from. Personally, these are the films that I always want to make. I don’t think dividing films into blockbusters, indie or art house — it’s not a matter of good or evil or anything like that. I think it all depends on the individual work. Is this blockbuster film creative or new? Is it derivative and cliché? I think you can be creative or derivative, whether the film is blockbuster or art house.”

Hollywood could learn a thing or four from Bong, who has learned a thing or four from it. He grew up watching American films on television and considered Alfred Hitchcock his “mentor.” When “The Host” and “Okja” drew comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s 1970s output, Bong thought it a “huge honor,” considering “The Sugarland Express,” “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” were signatures of his film education. But now he is eclipsing most American cinema, advancing a platonic ideal between highbrow and lowbrow.

Fast-forward a decade or two, and we’ll probably see budding filmmakers citing Bong as their cinematic tutor. As life on Earth becomes more fraught, Bong could emerge as this century’s bard. His movies are buoyant but not treacly, at once entertaining and devastating — the ultimate reflections of humanity. In his universe, optimism and cynicism aren’t mutually exclusive. “Parasite” can close on a gutting note but still leave the viewer giddy, and that’s exactly what Bong wants.

“Although it doesn’t have English subtitles, there’s a song that plays during the end credits, and it’s sung by the actor who plays the young protagonist,” he said. “I wrote the lyrics myself.” 

Those lyrics describe how long it would take the character to save enough money to purchase the rich family’s palatial home: 564 years. But he’s a crafty guy. He’s gotten his parents out of penniless situations before; Frankensteining a more prosperous reality is his forte. Who’s to say he won’t do it again?

“If you leave the theater after listening to those lyrics, I think you won’t feel as dark about the film because it’s basically about how he’s continuing on to march on with his life,” Bong said. “And although it’s not completely hopeful, you still feel less dark about the movie.”

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