‘Parasite’ director Bong Joon Ho dissects his tale of two families

January 21, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

Family dysfunction inspired a multitude of this year’s Oscar nominees. Knives Out (Best Screenplay) pits a plucky housekeeper against a dead man’s murderously spiteful heirs. Marriage Story (six nominations including Best Picture) follows a once-happy couple and their son through a bitter divorce. Joker (11 nominations including Best Picture) traces its antihero’s misery to an awful childhood and mentally ill mother.

And then there’s Parasite. Writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s spellbinding tale of two families, which earned some notable wins at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, became the first South Korean film to earn a Best Picture nod, along with Academy Award nominations for director, screenplay, editing, production design, and international film. A taut crowd-pleaser with around $140 million and counting at the worldwide box office, Parasite revisits the class warfare theme explored by Bong in his 2013 dystopian train-from-hell adventure, Snowpiercer.

The Kim family (from left: Choi Woo Shik, Song Kang Ho, Chang Hyae Jin, Park So Dam) as seen in Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.” The film is about two Korean families and the class issues that result as they come into contact.
Courtesy of Neon + CJ Entertainment

This time around, economic inequality dims the prospects for bright but impoverished twentysomething Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik), his facile liar of a sister (Park So Dam), his unemployed dad (Song Kang Ho), and his formidable mother (Chang Hyae Jin). Together, the destitute Kim clan hatch a scheme to take over the wealthy Park family’s enormous home.

Through a translator, Bong spoke to Fortune via email about Parasite’s bittersweet family dynamics.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Bong Joon Ho directs a scene on the set of “Parasite.”
Courtesy of Neon + CJ Entertainment

Parasite opens on the very lively Kim family crowded into this tiny sub-basement space with zero privacy. How did you get the idea for introducing these characters in this way?

More than anything else the inspiration was the space itself, a narrow semi-basement home with low ceilings. Because this family of four live in such a small space, they can’t be by themselves even if they want to, and they have no choice but to eat, chat, and hang out with each other. They even work together, folding pizza boxes, and share beers afterward to celebrate. I think the film shows a family naturally blending into their space.

Cho Yeo Jeong is the Park family’s gullible mother in “Parasite.”
Courtesy of Neon + CJ Entertainment

Contrast that with the well-to-do Park family in their huge house, where the father, the mom, and their two kids barely communicate.

Because the Park family live in such a big home, they can separate themselves from each other, and it feels like they need to hop on the phone to talk to each other. What’s interesting is that I intentionally didn’t show any physical intimacy between the parents and children throughout the entire film. In particular, the mom, Yeongyo, is very fond of and almost obsessed with her son, but you don’t ever see her hugging or patting him. It’s actually the housekeeper, Moongwang, who takes him in her arms and plays with him, which you see repeatedly in the beginning. So when she’s fired and kicked out of the house at the halfway point of the film, we see a lonely shot of the boy where he feels even more solitude. 

When the two families come together under one roof, deceit, envy, and class snobbery lead to a tragic third act. How does the Parasite story reflect your observations about the real world?

We currently live in this fantasy that people are equal, that the class system is obsolete, that we live in a free democratic society. I think the second half of this film shows the brutal truth that we still live in a cruel, classist society where these borderlines can never be eradicated. Jobs like tutoring, housekeeping, and driving create situations where people of different classes come so close to each other that they can smell one another, but they still can’t overcome the line that divides them. 

The cast and crew of “Parasite” attend the 25th Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on Jan. 12 in Santa Monica.
Frazer Harrison—Getty Images

The driving force in Parasite, poor Ki-woo, dreams of a better life for himself and his family. How did you conceive of his character?

Ki-woo is not an angry young man. Despite his situation calling for complaints and rage, he doesn’t get angry, and you see him trying to be positive about everything. He also shows respect toward his father, who doesn’t have a lot to show for himself. I think that’s actually an honest portrayal of today’s youth. Instead of having a passion for revolution or being caught up in rage against the world, they seem to struggle to somehow adapt to this world which has been nothing but cruel to them. As someone who is part of a generation that experienced revolutions, I feel bad for them.

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