The filmmaker reflects on the rise of Korean cinema, balancing the physical with the cerebral and the significance of John Cho's enunciation.
Even before he heard his name on the nominations telecast, Bong Joon Ho, the Korean director of the six-time Oscar-nominated Parasite and a master of foreshadowing and suspense, spied what might have been a clue about his movie's ultimate fate.
One of the people tasked with reading the nominations, actor John Cho, was Korean-American. Was it a coincidence? Or an indication of — and face-saving concession to — the inevitable?
Either way, "he pronounced all of our names correctly," a grateful Bong pointed out through a translator, in a phone interview Monday afternoon from Los Angeles. "So that was memorable."
Parasite, a hair-raising modern fable about a poor family and a rich family who become unusually entangled, has been shattering expectations since it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, becoming the first South Korean film to do so.
Later, it convinced even subtitle-averse Americans to go to the box office, earning over US$25 million domestically. As the first Korean film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar (Parasite also received nominations in the directing, original screenplay, editing, production design and international feature categories), its global success is being hailed as a testament to the growing stature of that country's long film tradition.
For Bong, who won admiring comparisons to Steven Spielberg and Sidney Lumet for his earlier films (including Memories of Murder and The Host), and international audiences with later works (Snowpiercer and Okja), the nominations are the cherry on top of an extraordinary year.
"The first time something like this has happened, so I don't even know how to process or compare my emotions," he said. "But, of course, it's great."
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: There's a rich, century-old film tradition in South Korea, but you're the first Korean filmmaker to be nominated for a best director Oscar. That must be staggering to process. How does it feel?
A: Of course, we don't make films for continents or countries — filmmakers create films for their personal dreams and obsessions. But despite that, it doesn't happen very often for an Asian or Korean film to get nominated for the Oscars. It's a very rare thing. The Korean press, they're all very excited. It's almost like a national celebration, and I think, in a way, it's inevitable to be surrounded with such festivity right now.
Q: Do you take pride in that achievement?
A: I'm very happy I didn't create this film on my own. I'm very grateful to all the people who created this film with me and all the teams that were involved in the campaign process.
Q: Why do you think Korean cinema is having such a breakthrough moment right now?
A: I think it just shows that Parasite isn't a film that came out of nowhere. Korean cinema has a very long history, and Parasite is a continuation of all the Korean films that came before. It's an extension of our history. It's not the first time a Korean film has gone through something like this. Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden won a BAFTA, and last year Burning [directed by Lee Chang-dong] was a part of the shortlist [for what was then the foreign-language film Oscar]. And there have been animated shorts from Korea nominated for Oscars. So all of these developments over all of these years matured to lead to Parasite today.
Q: Parasite is your seventh feature as a director. Did you have a sense when you were making it that it had the potential to make the impact that it has?
A: From Cannes, to today in L.A., we've experienced a series of all of these unexpected events with the film. Especially with the box office, it's done incredibly well around the world. And that's something that we never expected. I created this film because of the controversial aspects of the story, and to take on these bold challenges, but I always worried how they would be received by the public and the wider world. And I'm really happy to see the audience embrace the challenges that "Parasite" took on.
Q: Critics have noted that the film engages viewers on multiple levels at once — emotionally, physically and intellectually. What's the key to achieving that in one movie?
A: With my films, I want the audience to be physically and instinctively captivated by the film while they're watching it. I want them to be sucked into the story. I want to grab them by the collar and shake them up. And then, after two hours, they can go home and take a shower and lie in bed; and that's when they're hit with all of the intellectual, controversial and cerebral messages that the film has to offer. They become obsessed with what the film was trying to say and can't stop thinking about it. That's the kind of experience that I want to provide for my audience.
Q: Last year, Roma also received both foreign film and best picture nominations. Do you think film audiences are becoming more globalised? More friendly to non-English work?
A: I think audiences in the US and the international community are opening up to more foreign language films, to cross-cultural, international films. And I think the success Parasite has enjoyed in the US really reflects that.
Written by: Reggie Ugwu
Photographs by: Philip Cheung
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