As Bong Joon Ho’s record-breaking Parasite continues its run here at Film at Lincoln Center, we’re sharing the full transcription of his Directors Dialogue conversation with Dennis Lim at the 57th New York Film Festival. They discussed his early film-watching days, his views on the New Korean Cinema movement, his film’s themes of family and class, the murderer from Memories of Murder being recently caught, and much more.
Dennis Lim: I thought we would start at the very beginning, about how you got into filmmaking. It was really striking to me that you’ve studied sociology. If there is any filmmaker that makes any sense to have had sociology as a background I think it’s you. So can you say a little bit about why it was your field at university?
Bong Joon Ho: My major was sociology, but I know nothing about it. [Laughs] I spent most of my time during university at the school cinema club. And somehow I ended up studying sociology, but I had no real interest in the field. But I wasn’t really inspired by the classes or really the professors. Instead I spent a lot of time with the friends I met at school and I learned about worlds that I never knew before from them. After graduating from university, I went to the Korean Academy of Film Arts which is a film school, operated by the government. That’s where I went to create my short films.
DL: You were at the universities in the late eighties, early nineties?
BJH: It was 1988, 1989.
DL: This is quite a tumultuous time in South Korea in terms of student protest. Were you politically active?
BJH: Actually, at the time, South Korea was still under the military government, not the harsh dictatorship. The very strong, harsh dictatorship is over in 1987, but this military government still remains from 1988 to 1992. So a lot of the students, not only just me, all participated in the protest. But it was pretty much a part of our daily lives. We would go to class for three hours and then maybe protest for two hours. We would go to eat and then go back to protest and then go back to studying. So it was very daily.
DL: So just part of the routine?
BJH: That was really almost every day on campus, at that time.
DL: You say you discovered cinema at the cinema club. What kind of films where you watching at that time?
BJH: When I was participating in the cinema club, I very intentionally tried to study film and watch films that are the greatest in cinema history. I looked at theoretical textbooks and I studied films with the intention to sort of master the history of the art. Unfortunately at the time, there was no cinematheque in South Korea. There was no DVD or internet so all those great classic films were illegal VHS copies. And I was the one who managed those videotapes from number one to five hundred. I was very obsessive over managing the collection. But at that time I watched films to really study them. Going further back when I was little, the films that I watched when I was in elementary school—those are the ones that flow in my bloodstream. In 1970 and in the eighties, in South Korea, there is a TV Channel called AFKN, the American Forces Korean Network. It is some kind of broadcast station for the U.S. Army in South Korea. So every Friday night, they would play sort of these really intense R-rated films, and while my family was sleeping I would watch them by myself. At that time I had no information about the films, but later on when I went to college that’s when I realized that the films that I saw when I was little were ones by John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, Sam Peckinpah, and Alfred Hitchcock. So I was really deeply obsessed with those films, and because I didn’t know any English back then I basically reconstructed the narrative in my head, and I think that was good training to be a screenwriter.
DL: These are all American films on this channel. When did your awareness of Korean cinema start? Is Korean cinema of an earlier generation important to you?
BJH: I consider the Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-young always as my mentor. He is the director who did The Housemaid, which was restored by the Scorsese Foundation and Japanese directors like Shōhei Imamura and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, those filmmakers I learned about after college when I was trying to study films.
DL: We’re doing a series of what came to be known as the New Korean Cinema. I don’t know if it’s accurate to call it a movement, but there is certainly a generation of filmmakers around your age who started making films in Korea, from the mid nineties and onwards. That seemed to be a really exciting time for Korean cinema when it had another moment of resurgence on the world stage. As somebody who was part of it, I’m wondering if you had a sense of what contributed to that moment.
BJH: It wasn’t as if we had this manifesto that we are part of this group like Dogme 95, and we never considered this a movement per se. But it is true that directors like Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, and I we did hang around together in the early 2000s and we watched a lot of films together. I do think that we are kind of the first cinephile generation of Korea. But the Korean director Im Kwon-taek was the first Korean director to screen in Cannes and sort of gained this international reputation. He is a film director from my parents’ generation, and he is kind of like John Ford where he first started out in the film industry as a prop master. He didn’t study film or watch films at these cinematheques. He worked on set and then eventually became a film director and like John Ford, Coppola, and Scorsese, they all belong to different generations. It was similar for Korea. But my generation of filmmakers like Kim Jee-woon and Park Chan-wook, we were very obsessed with collecting DVDs, then we would show off our collections to one another. We would borrow DVDs and never return them. We would be like, “Did you see this film? I have.” And so it was kind of this childish atmosphere that we formed. We sort of competed in devouring cinema.
DL: Who has the biggest collection?
BJH: I don’t know exactly, but maybe me.
DL: We’ll go with that.
BJH: I don’t know exactly but more than five or six thousand Blu-rays and DVDs, not including iTunes things and other physical formats.
DL: You were talking about this group of filmmakers. You are all very different filmmakers. Especially if you include Lee Chang-dong and Hong Sang-soo and a few others. But I wonder if you think there is something that connects this group and this generation. Just to generalize a bit, I feel like there is something about your generation that is interested in taking a closer look at society, but also taking a more satirical, a more ironic, a more critical look at the society in which you live.
BJH: Generally, I think you can definitely say that we all flow with our times but directors like me and Park Chan-wook, we have a lot of affection and obsession for genres. And directors like Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-dong, they are quite distant from genres. They are more auteurs who love to delve deep into their messages and their stories.
DL: Looking at the scope of your career, you’ve made seven films. I’m wondering, are you the type of filmmaker who tends to make a film in response to the previous one? Whether it’s to do something different or to elaborate on a theme. To what degree is your previous work in your mind?
BJH: That’s true I always try to create something different. I want to create a film that has never existed in this world and that also includes my work. I’m always ambitious and trying to create something new. With Parasite, l came up with this idea in 2013 when I was working on the post-production of Snowpiercer. But before I begin writing the screenplay, I let the idea percolate and mature for three, four years—it’s like wine or whisky. It’s not because of something after Mother I did Snowpiercer, because of something of Okja I did Parasite–it wasn’t like that. Projects tend to overlap.
DL: Parasite is described, accurately I think, about class, about economic inequality, about this particular form of capitalism that we all live in now. It’s kind of a logical progression for you to make a film that is so explicitly about class as your films have always been about underdogs in some way. Your characters are always fighting against something larger, a larger force or big monster. I think class is something hard to deal with in cinema and I’m struck by Parasite and a film from last year by Lee Chang-dong, Burning, that also deals very explicitly with class. I’m wondering if this is something that is a central topic of conversation in Korea today, that has created these popular films. Because even though class is part of the conversation here in America, I don’t see artworks about it.
BJH: So I think it’s very natural for artists to be very sensitive to the times that they live in. There was Burning by Lee Chang-dong, but there was also the American film Us by Jordan Peele, although that film is a much stronger genre film. There was also Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda. And it’s not like Jordan Peele, Lee Chang-dong, and Hirokazu Kore-eda all gathered at the U.N. headquarters to have a meeting on how to strategize about creating films on class. But I think every artist just responded to their own times in their own ways and that’s why we had such strong films in the past couple of years.
And Snowpiercer was also a story about class. It was a story about the rich and poor, set in a train. But Snowpiercer was also adapted from a French graphic novel that was published in the 1980s. And that was already thirty, forty years ago and we were still under capitalism then. So I think class is a theme that just penetrates our times throughout. I think we are always ready to talk about this issue. For Parasite, I also tutored for a very rich family when I was in college. That house had a private sauna on the second floor. And so the boys showed of the sauna to me and I still vividly remember the eerie feeling I had just being in that house. I remember how proud that young boy seemed to be of this very rich house and I remember how I felt like I was spying on the private lives of complete strangers. Those personal memories were where my idea for this film began. So rather than just intending to give a political message on class, those personal memories are where this begins.
DL: Another aspect of Parasite is family, which is another theme that seems to run through your work. The Host is a kind of a film about family, Mother is a film about family.
BJH: I think aside from Memories of Murder, my films have always centered around the family. But most of the families in my films are shattered in some strange format or they are lacking something. They are missing a part. My films always features extreme situations for those families. The Host is about a dad who tries to save a daughter that was kidnapped by a monster. It’s a very strange story. My stories always begin with families that are incomplete and I drive them towards extreme situations. Families are the most basic unit of people that we encounter on a daily basis, so I always have this impulse to drive them into very unique situations.
DL: I wanted to talk about the process of writing and storyboarding, which I know is a very important part of your process. Which makes sense to hear that you discovered cinema in a way not fully understanding the language of American cinema, watching films in certain way. I think you are an incredibly visual director, but more than that I think of you as a really spatial director. Your films convey a really strong sense of space. You can use any film as an example, the two houses in Parasite or the train in Snowpiercer. Do the spaces come first before the dialogue?
BJH: Thank you for pointing that out. I’m very obsessive over space. I get very excited and happy when I discover a great space. I just go crazy over it. [Laughs.] And of course my storyboarding process is based on space and I’m very obsessed over finding locations. My location scouting process is very meticulous. For Mother I basically scanned the entire Korean peninsula to discover the locations. And for Parasite in particular, because 90% of the narrative takes place in the two houses, it was pretty different from my previous films and the two houses were all sets that we couldn’t visit before they were completed and because I never worked like that before, I had to give it a lot of thought. For the rich house, it was very meticulous how each space was segmented. There are a lot of secrets in there and a lot of things happen and half of the story takes place in the rich house. We basically create a virtual rendering of the rich house. We created a virtual model. I asked the visual effects company to make an exact model of what the art department was trying to build and I was also able to test out the camera positions and the camera lens. It was like playing a video game where I could roam around the house through my computer so I still have the virtual model of the rich house on my computer. So I storyboarded based on that virtual model of the rich house and it was pretty much the same. I could just shoot based on the storyboard. And the poor neighborhood was a pretty complicated process as well. Because of the flood scene, we basically had to build the entire neighborhood in a water tank so at the end of production we could just pour in water to flood the entire set. And for that we had to work with the special effects team and prepare very meticulously. Because I’m so obsessive with my storyboard I don’t shoot coverage and that could be frustrating for my editor since he doesn’t have any options, because the finished film is pretty much similar to my storyboard.
But I’m not a control freak. [Laughs] Particularly for my actors I try to give them freedom. I would meticulously set the frame and the image and I try hard to make them as comfortable as possible. I also encourage them to improvise, but mostly because they have to follow very complicated camera movements. They are always telling me that they have no time or leisure to improvise anything with the meticulous set-up I put up. But actors like Song Kang Ho he is always very inspirational and he still manages to improvise a lot.
DL: You said you are a filmmaker who is interested in genre. That is a good way to put it because you’re sort of a genre filmmaker, but I think the interesting thing about your films is that there is never just one genre. I wonder if you can talk about what you see as the uses of genre as a filmmaker, and how you approach possibly combining them or breaking the rules of genre.
BJH: I have a split personality. I always want to feel the excitement that genre brings and I want the genre’s elements of my film to overwhelm the audience and just sweep them away, but at the same time I get very frustrated by the rules. I’m like, “Why do I have to keep all the rules?” And I try to break the conventions. I’m basically like a little boy trying to scatter the ants away with a branch. For Mother or Parasite I was relatively less aware or obsessed about the genre. I tried to reflect the daily life of Korea and the reality of Korea’s society. But definitely for The Host and Snowpiercer I was very much aware of the genre’s elements.
Actually The Host is a monster movie, a monster flick. [But something different than] Godzilla. At the time I really hated the convention of a monster movie. If the audience wants to see the whole body of the monster, the audience has to wait almost one hour or one and a half hours. I really hated that, so that is the reason I show the whole body of the monster under the broad daylight. Just fourteen minutes after the beginning of the film.
I felt so excited and relieved that I could show this monster in broad daylight so soon into the film but then comes the question of what do I do next? In the beginning the monster is all revealed and you end up discovering more about this family. They are not the perfect family, but they have a lot of affection for each other. And then you end up seeing the society that harasses them and that leads to the satire on the U.S. So I think as I destroy genre’s conventions, I leave room for elements of reality and political commentary to seep into my films.
DL: This is a question about Memories of Murder from 2003. I think it’s one of your great films, up there with Parasite. It’s a film that is based on a true story and a serial killer who was never caught… until a few days ago.
BJH: Three weeks ago!
DL: I was wondering, that is so much a part of the film, the fact that they don’t know who the killer is. I’m wondering if you can talk about your response to this news.
BJH: You have the Zodiac killer which David Fincher made a movie on. Jack the Ripper in the 19th century U.K., which was an unsolved case. And in Korea, it’s the case that Memories of Murder is based on, but recently the culprit was discovered through DNA data and it turned out that it was someone who had already been in jail for decades. And the murderer actually confessed to his crime. Several profilers interrogated him which led to his confession. And I felt very complicated. Throughout the years I have always wanted to see his face. I was terrified, but at the same time I was desperate to see his face as I was writing the script.
During screenwriting at the time—eighteen years ago in 2001, 2002—I did very big, deep research process. I met many people and some people around the victims and also the detectives at the time and also the journalists, but only one person I could not meet is the murderer. I used to have a notepad where I wrote down questions that I could quickly ask him if I somehow run into him. And I would carry that notepad with me all the time. Since I didn’t know that he was already in jail I thought that maybe once the movie comes out he might actually come see it. That made me feel very complicated and scared as well.
The very last shot of Memories of Murder is the detective. He is watching the camera, in the center of the frame. I wanted them to lock eyes. It’s not very common to have the actors stare into the camera, but I thought if the murderer is sitting somewhere in the audience I wanted him to lock eyes with the detective who is so desperate to find him but ultimately failed. In the last part of that film, you see this girl who supposedly ran into the murderer and the detective asks the girl what he looks like. The girl says that he just looks normal, that he has a very normal face. And ultimately on the screen you never see the murderer’s face.
The film came out in 2003 and so 16 years later I was finally able to see the face of the murderer. It wasn’t just me. All Koreans were able to see and I don’t know if you can say it was fortunate but fortunately he doesn’t have a very normal face. I think if he just had a nice-looking normal face I would have felt more hurt. But thankfully he didn’t look that way. Perhaps because I knew he was the murderer.
The following are questions from the audience.
You mentioned your studies in sociology in college. I’m an economics student who wants to make movies, maybe in the future. Do you have any recommendations or suggestions for someone who study other major in college and wants to be a director?
BJH: So I suggest you study just enough to graduate and spend most of your time in a film club. Don’t connect your major to filmmaking. [Laughs.] So I think it’s great to watch films, to repeatedly watch films that you like and almost memorize your favorite scenes and I think that naturally leads to you just creating them.
I have a question about the different audience reactions depending on the region. I was in Korea over the summer and I watched Parasite there and I watched it over here again at this festival and I found something really interesting here. Because the reactions of the audiences were very different. Some scenes were very sad when I watched it in Korea, but then here it was just full of laughter. I was wondering if this is supposed to be a comedy or something? How do you take that?
BJH: Actually it depends on which screening you saw, maybe. Even in the same country, they are all different. A serious film festival, a genre film festival, the midnight screening, the morning press screenings—it’s all different. I don’t know what kind of screening you were at, but overall I feel that American and European audiences laugh more. They seem to enjoy the film more as a genre film. But I think for Korean audiences, the film feels like things have happened around them on a daily basis. People know friends who have gone through similar things, people who have actually lived in the semi-basement homes themselves. So I think they can feel more heavy-hearted after watching this film. I screened this film in Cannes, Sydney, Germany, Telluride, Toronto, New York, and even Texas and I had the opportunity to watch the film again with the audience at some of the screenings and overall I noticed that generally the responses are very similar. This film is ultimately about rich and poor, so no matter which country it is, every country, we’re all living this one giant nation of capitalism. We’re living in a time where even China follows capitalism.
Your endings are usually really powerful, especially the last shot of your movies. I think about Mother’s last shot and you seem to put a lot of care into the last shot of the movie. I’d like for you to talk a little bit about that.
BJH: For those of you who haven’t seen Mother, it ends with the protagonist who is almost half-crazy at that point in a running bus dancing with other ladies in the bus. But that image existed long before the script. It was already there from the time I wrote a two-page treatment of that story. Basically the two hours of the film I created it so that it leads to that final moment in the film. And that scene where you see a bunch of old ladies, probably mothers, dancing in a running tourist bus, it’s a very unique thing that you see in Korea and maybe even in Romania. Some Romanian reporters told me that it happens there, in Cannes. And it’s a very Korean image. I remember seeing it when I was little. And I thought to myself if I created a film about mothers I would always want to include that scene. That scene was very difficult technically because we had to have actual sunlight penetrate the bus horizontally and we only had around 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes during sunset to shoot it. We had to calculate the exact direction of the sun with the speed of the bus. And we had to calculate all the angles to pull it off.
And, you know, I shot [the scene] and that’s why it’s in the film, but on the day we shot it I felt very strange. It was as if I was yanking out a decade-old tumor from my heart.
Can you talk about financing and where you get your money to do your films, whether it’s the state or an individual or American banking? And how much does it influence your work? Does it affect the story at all? Especially in Parasite. Does the state come down and give notes at all? Do they have any kind of say in the movie?
BJH: Thankfully, I’m a Korean film director and the Korean film industry has a very robust market. Every year, they produce more than a hundred feature films. The market is basically half-dominated by Hollywood films and half by domestic films. So there are always these large studio companies that consistently invest in Korean-language films. So generally I get investment from private studios and most of the government funding goes to independent films and documentaries. I struggled with financing for The Host, despite the fact that Memories of Murder was quite successful, box-office-wise in Korea. When I told them that I wanted to create a film with a monster running around, they were like, “You are not in the right mind. How are we going to create that in Korea?” They were very concerned that it would require high budget. But after the tribulations I managed to get a pretty limited budget compared to what I wanted to show on this film. Basically with each shot that we show the visual effects creature, there was a price tag to it and it was a very high price tag. We had to calculate backwards depending on our budget, so we had an exact number of how many monster shots I could have with this film. With that exact count I storyboarded the film. You could say it was frustrating and a painful process, but I think that actually stimulated my creativity even further.
For example, Steven Spielberg, when he made Jaws, the plastic shark made by Universal apparently was really bad. That plastic shark would constantly malfunction or sink, but that’s how you get the famous POV shot of the shark with that John Williams score. It’s even more suspenseful. We never really see the shark on screen. He only took that approach because of that unfortunate handicap. After The Host, I really never had struggles with financing or the studio interfering with my creative decisions. I was very free as I shot films in Korea. For Parasite, the studio gave me a lot of support in terms of the production period and the budget and they didn’t interfere at all during the post-production process. Only once during the process of distributing Snowpiercer in North America I did go through an interesting incident, but it’s all in the past. I forgot it all. [Laughs.]
DL: I think we can guess… You mentioned that you do not like rehearsals. I was wondering how is your relationship with actors? It’s often taught here in America that rehearsals is a way to develop the characters. How do you craft these essential characters without rehearsals?
BJH: I think it’s different for every actor and director. Everyone has their own method and taste but for me, I would rather just shoot it if I had to rehearse. I think directors and actors always try to control the performances, whether it’s through direction or the actors trying to control their performances themselves. But I think every take carries the momentary truth that is exuded only in that moment. Every take is its own documentary, its own record of what happened at that particular moment. I don’t think you could ever see the same performance twice no matter how hard actors try. They are all subtly different. And so rather than rehearse and rather than have the actors give a trained performance and practice movements, I would rather have them practice less and show what is right at that moment, what is alive at that moment, like a fish that have just been pulled out of the water. I would rather have them flap around in chaos and leave that as a record on screen. So I worked with the actor Song Kang Ho four times and in that sense we’re very good collaborators because he just tries. Every take for him he shows a different performance and after the take I never tell him you should do this because of this and because of that. I just constantly tell him let’s go again, let’s go again. And some of those moments, we just sparked together and surprisingly we are always satisfied with the same takes.
Have you experienced any censorship in the process of making a film? And do you think the murder has watched your film in jail?
BJH: The murder was in jail since 1994, so he’s been there for around two decades and according to someone who was in his prison cell he watched it three times when it was broadcast on TV, but this hasn’t been confirmed. It might just be a random rumor. I’m very curious how he felt if he watched the film.
I’m a part of a very lucky generation, with the new administration in 1996-97; they stopped censoring film. Instead they implemented a rated system, R-rated or PG-13. So I’ve never experienced censorship.
For more on Bong Joon Ho’s Palme d’Or winner, pick up the September-October 2019 issue of Film Comment with features by Amy Taubin and Ari Aster.