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Bong Joon-ho has made a career out of fascinating character movies set against the backdrop of outrageous events. On the surface, his early film Memories of Murder is a standard true-crime cop drama, but Joon-ho was able to structure it so that the audience is constantly getting hit with new twists and turns, so that by the end an audience member is almost lightheaded.
Much like David Fincher with Zodiac, Joon-ho uses structure, immaculate production design, and interesting characters to move beyond what seems like a cut-and-dried formula. He did the same with creature feature/family drama The Host and the mom-on-a-mission revenge drama Mother, before taking a stab at a couple English-language films.
Even with his forays into Western filmmaking, Joon-ho hasn't forgotten his roots. Snowpiercer might be filled with Western stars, but the crazy sci-fi premise has the depth of his South Korean work. It's not just a post-apocalyptic action flick; the film has a lot on its mind in regard to class and how the rich keep the poor down, a theme that also found its way into his latest film, Parasite.
Parasite is about a family of poor con artists who start infiltrating various staff positions in a very rich home. They're not evil people. Neither are any members of the rich family. There's an ambiguity to the film that makes it ten times more appealing than your standard thriller.
When I got the chance to talk to the South Korean filmmaker at Fantastic Fest, I knew I wanted to bring up all that in some way, especially his use of pacing, and when I did I was met with something I didn't expect.
He just looked at me for what felt like a full minute, holding my gaze the whole time.
As an interviewer, silence can be your friend. Typically you can use it to keep a subject talking if you want more on a topic. It's a signal that you think there's more to be said without having to say, “Elaborate.” Having it turned on you is quite an uncomfortable thing, let me tell you.
But time is a funny thing. Listening back on the audio, it was only a brief hesitation, just slightly longer than his time taking in and answering my other questions, but time messes with you, and as a result I was sure my question to Joon-ho must have been pretty crappy.
That hunch became a certainty when he spoke in Korean to his translator and it was just a quick burst, not the longer in-depth response I had hoped for.
Turns out I had been given one of the biggest compliments of my career. I just didn't know it yet.
My question was about how he finds his very distinct pace. Parasite is a slow burn, and relatively contained, but it feels like it rockets along, the personal stakes of the characters as big as any world-ending comic book movie finale. So I asked how he manages that pace, whether it was something he had to find in the edit or if he homed in on it during the script stage.
Then that damned silence, my inner mini-panic attack, and the quick burst of Korean, which was quickly translated as “Since Cannes, I've done around 200 interviews, and no one has asked me that question before.”
He then went on to say how happy he was for the question, because it was something he wanted to talk about.
“Of course you do create rhythm in the editing room, but I think there's a limit to how much you can adjust at that point,” he continued. “Since I write my own scripts, that's something I constantly think about at that stage. To compare it to archery, it's like I have this very tiny dot far away that I want to hit with my arrow, and it has to be a bullseye to create the pacing and the rhythm that I want.
"Writing the script is like pulling on the bow, filming is like trying to target the bow to that spot I want, and the very last stage, when I'm finally locking the edit is when I actually shoot the arrow," he continued. "From the scriptwriting stage to picture lock to sound mixing, the entire process is related to how I create my rhythm.”
He added that he believes cinema is miscategorized as an art medium similar to painting or novels. Joon-ho believes it has a lot more in common with music.
“It's always in progression,” he said. “I think that's where this desire to control the rhythm comes from. Every master filmmaker has their own sense of pacing and rhythm.”
Following up on his mention of pacing and rhythm, I added that I think the secret to his success, particularly in Parasite, is how he puts a priority on character work. Most of the film takes place in a single (very nice) house, but his characters are constantly discovering something new and facing new challenges. There's an escalation built into the movie simply because we like and relate to them, something he's used in all his movies I mentioned above, including Snowpiercer.
“In Snowpiercer you have this set group of people progressing forward, moving on and on toward the front car, and a lot of the fun comes from witnessing all the new cars that appear in the film," he said. "You can say Parasite works in the opposite way. It feels as if the film is adding more and more characters as the narrative progresses. You end up seeing characters you never knew existed, you start seeing new sides to these characters. If Snowpiercer discovers more train cars as the film progresses, Parasite explores newer sections to these characters.”
Both Snowpiercer and Parasite require you, as an audience member, to have your bearings. In Snowpiercer you have to understand visually where you are as Chris Evans and his group progress to the front of the train. In Parasite it's very important that you understand the geography of the house as the crazier second half kicks off.
“Basically in the first half there are so many characters you're introduced to, and it seems like the film is trying to familiarize you with the characters and the situations, but actually if you look at it more closely the film is educating the audience on the space, especially the rich house,” Joon-ho said. “After the audience has a very detailed understanding of the space, the game begins in the second half.
“Also, the number of items, like furniture, that you see in the rich house is very limited. The house is very big and extravagant, but it's also very empty at the same time, so it makes you feel like everything you see on the surface is all there is to this house. The first half of the film really builds up that sense of emptiness, and later on, when you discover there's a completely new thing to this space, it maximizes the shock that you feel.”
And you absolutely feel that shock. There's a reveal in the back half of the movie that takes the story to a whole new level. But at the end of the day, it really is all about the characters. Both the families, poor and rich, are drawn well. There is no clear-cut villain, which is unusual for a film like this. You could see the filmmaker deciding to make the con-artist family more dastardly or make the rich family caricatures of the wealthy, unlikable, and cruel. But neither is the case.
“From the very beginning I thought this story would be a lot more powerful if all these characters were in this unique and neutral gray zone,” Joon-ho said. “It's not as if this film features complete villains, but even then the film ends on a very intense calamity. I think that itself is the main theme of this film. Even without villains the situation continues to grow worse. Who is responsible for that degradation? What exactly is this invisible fear that we're all haunted by?”
When you care about the people in a story that makes all the difference, and luckily for us, Master Bong Joon-ho always brings it when it comes to the characters in his crazy movies.
Parasite hits theaters on October 11.