Between the Cannes premiere of “Parasite” in May 2019 and its Best Picture win at the Oscars some nine months later, writer-director Bong Joon Ho gave over 600 interviews, and participated in more than 100 post-screening Q&As. That’s an average of more than two interviews every single day. It’s a testament to Bong’s endurance that he survived that gauntlet (and was just as pleasant to speak to at the end of that journey as he was at the beginning), and it’s a testament to the vitality of his film that — even after speaking with virtually every semi-legitimate entertainment journalist on the planet Earth — there was still more to say about it.
Nevertheless, when Bong and revered British film writer Tony Rayns connected over Zoom to record the audio commentary for the Criterion Collection’s new edition of “Parasite,” they were faced with the unusual challenge of shining new light on a movie that had been having a year-long moment in the sun. By this point, the vast majority of people who love “Parasite” enough to buy it on premium DVD or Blu-ray and sift through the special features already know about the invention of jjapaguri or “ram-don” noodles (which Bong still insists he’s never tried), the influence of Kurosawa’s “High and Low” on the verticality of the film’s class divide, and the fact that Ki-woo — on an average Korean salary — would have to work for 547 years to afford the house above the basement where his father ends up living at the end of the movie.
Recognizing how the various ideas and social concerns behind the film had already been discussed ad nauseum, Bong and Rayns devote their conversation to the minutiae of making “Parasite” in the hopes that an extreme close-up might reveal new (or clearer) ways of looking at it. The result is a fun and insightful commentary track that hardly ever betrays the fact that it was recorded some 5,500 miles apart (Bong in Seoul, and Rayns in London) — one that will prove illuminating to casual “Parasite” fans, and leave diehard connoisseurs with a few tidbits that even they might not have known before.
From visual details to previously unrevealed factoids and Bong’s few regrets, here are 10 things we learned from Criterion’s “Parasite” commentary:
1. The Title Design
One of the very first things that Rayns mentions to Bong is the film’s title design. The opening shot of the movie looks out at the street from the Kim family’s semi-basement apartment, with a few socks drying on the left side of the frame and the credits fitted into a cloudy window pane on the right. Asked why the Hangul characters that spell out the word “Parasite” curl into unusual spirals at their joints, Bong replies that he wanted the font to feel like a parasite making itself at home inside the organs of a foreign body. It’s a little detail, but one that inflects the otherwise quotidian prologue with a sinister energy and the coiled threat of change.
2. The Fake Diploma
When Mr. Kim examines the forged diploma that his daughter Ki-jung has made for his son Ki-woo, the English subtitles translate the name of the university that Ki-woo ostensibly attended to “Oxford,” because Bong felt that international audiences needed to understand the immaculate pedigree the fake resumé promised. In truth, the diploma that Ki-jung cobbles together in Photoshop is embossed with the crest of Yonsei University, which isn’t just one of Korea’s three most exclusive universities, but also Bong’s alma mater (he graduated in 1995 after making his first short films, founding a movie club, and being teargassed during several student demonstrations). The director doesn’t come from great wealth, but this feels like a sly recognition of his own privilege.
Rayns asks Bong if Yonsei had a problem with him using their image like that as a plot point in one of the most popular Korean films ever made, but Bong insists that the university was very happy to be included. “Some cool guys,” Bong says of the school’s administration, and without the sarcasm that phrasing might suggest.
3. The Framing of the Two Families
Almost nothing happens in a Bong Joon Ho movie by accident (more on that later), and that’s especially true when it comes to his shot compositions. One motif that viewers might naturally intuit as they watch — but that nevertheless becomes even more interesting to see in action once Bong calls explicit attention to it early in this commentary track — is that the poor Kim family is often framed together, while the members of the ultra-rich Park family are usually isolated into their own shots.
To some extent, this is a natural result of the respective spaces that define these families; the Kims’ squalid semi-basement apartment forces them to live on top of each other, while the Parks’ sprawling glass mansion invites its residents to silo themselves into their own private fish tanks. But Bong wanted to stress the cause and effects of that social construction to even greater effect — he tells Rayns that he forced the Kims to share their frames in order to stress the kinship between them, and took the opposite approach to the Parks in order to map the exploitable fissures that cut through their family. Most intriguingly, he points out that diligent housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang is consistently framed together with Park Da-song (the Park family’s young son) in order to convey how much closer the boy is to “the help” than he is to his own mother. It’s a bond that has everything and nothing to do with class, and Bong highlights the crestfallen Da-song at several points throughout the commentary in a way that calls new attention to the rich emotional undercurrents at work beneath this movie.
4. What Mrs. Park Says to Moon-gwang When She Fires Her
Speaking of the relationship between Moon-gwang and Da-song, Park opts to focus on the little boy’s loneliness during the scene where his beloved housekeeper (and best friend) is fired as a result of the Kim family’s meddling. We watch the heartbreaking dismissal from inside, and aren’t able to hear the explanation that Mrs. Park gives to the longtime employee she’s cutting loose. Does she confront Moon-gwang over her supposed tuberculosis, or does she find a more passive-aggressive way of firing her? Bong is happy to set the record straight: “Mrs. Park says ‘We don’t need a housekeeper anymore; I will do it myself.’” In other words, she comes up with a self-aggrandizing lie rather than show a hint of sympathy for the “sick” woman who’s been raising her son. Brutal.
5. The Intricacy of Bong’s Storyboards
It’s no secret that Bong storyboards every detail of his movies in advance — he even turned his storyboards for this movie into a graphic novel — but to listen to him talk through “Parasite” is to realize the full extent of what that really means. The degree of hyper-controlled predestination at work in “Parasite” makes “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feel like “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” by comparison.
The detail that kicks off that part of the discussion? The arrow that’s lodged between Da-song’s butt cheeks as he plays on the Park family’s lawn. Rayns, who’s known Bong since the days of “Barking Dogs Never Bite,” understandably seems to assume that Bong came up with that silly little flourish on the fly, but the director insists that he drew it into his storyboards from the start. Bong notes the Park family’s recurring appropriation of Native American imagery, and says that while the family has no real interest in the subject (“it’s just something fancy to them, like Che Guevara on a t-shirt”), he finds symbolic meaning in how the Parks “colonized” a house that had already had someone living in its basement when they get there.
The attention to detail hardly stops there: Bong designed the smears of blood on Oh Geun-se’s face, he planned the flow of traffic in the Kim family’s neighborhood, and he wrote the frames-per-second rates of the film’s slow-motion shots into his storyboards before the sets were even built. It’s no wonder that — as has been reported, and is discussed further here — Bong used digital technology to combine performances from different takes in the scene where the Kim family sprawls out in the Parks’ living room: He wouldn’t accept even the slightest gap between what he shot and how he envisioned it.
The one unplanned detail that Bong says he allowed into the final cut? The fly that rests on Geun-se’s bloody fingers after he’s been stabbed to death. It’s a grace note so perfect that Bong probably resents not coming up with it himself.
6. The Influence of “Fury Road”
Bong has never been shy about his undying love for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” “It’s amazing,” he’s said of George Miller’s revered 2015 reboot. I cried watching that movie. When the cars are swept up in the sandstorm and the music escalates, I felt like my soul was escalating too and tears just came out of my eyes.” Be that as it may, it still comes as something of a surprise when Bong tells Rayns that “Parasite” was directly inspired by “Fury Road.” What does a serrated black comedy have in common with the most anarchic action movie of the 21st Century (besides a shared antipathy towards inequality)? In a word: Pacing.
“That movie never stops,” Bong says of “Fury Road” as part of his response to a compliment Rayns pays him about how elegantly “Parasite” hides its exposition in plain sight. “All of the background information in ‘Fury Road’ appears quite naturally. The camera is always moving, but the information is explained through action. It was quite inspirational to me.” That morsel tees up a discussion of the shorthand that “Parasite” uses to set up the Kim family’s “infestation” of the Park home, and leaves you with a newfound appreciation for what this movie chooses to elide.
7. The Pink Floyd Reference
The name of Mr. Park’s company is only mentioned once, but viewers were quick to flag “Another Brick” as a reference to the anti-establishment anthems of Pink Floyd. Bong confirms the nod on the commentary track, and elaborates that Pink Floyd was his favorite band in college, when his political convictions were first taking shape.
8. Some Uncharacteristic Sex
Rayns — to Bong’s seeming discomfort — is a bit hung up on the connection between smell and sex in the movie. When he observes that the scent of the Kim family appears to unlock some kind of transgressive desire within Mr. Park, and triggers the sex scene on the living room couch, Bong confirms the connection: “The smell of poverty reminds him of the backseat of the car, and is related to the sex he thinks his former driver had in there. It’s that kind of process in the mind.”
It’s an uncharacteristic detail for Bong, as Rayns observes that this is perhaps the most explicit sex scene in the director’s entire body of work. Bong can only explain that away with an impish giggle: “I’m not that perverted of a guy — I’m a very light and pleasant man.”
9. The Gym from “The Host”
Here’s a little detail that should delight longtime Bong devotees: The gym where the Kim family goes for disaster relief after their neighborhood is flooded is the same gym that the family from “The Host” was forced into after a monster came out of the Han River and sowed chaos on its shores. But that was 14 years ago and with three movies in between, so when Bong showed up to the “Parasite” set that day, he didn’t realize that he’d been there before. It was only when a collaborator pointed it out that everything snapped into place for him: “‘Oh fuck!’” Bong remembers gasping out loud. Time plays tricks on us all.
In fairness to Bong, he might have been too preoccupied on the work at hand to notice; on the commentary track, he insists that the seemingly innocuous scene of the Kim family huddling together at the gym is the saddest moment in the entire movie, and one of the most crucial. Mr. Kim might tell his son that “no plan” is the only plan that never fails, but Bong wanted that beat to convey that plans are a privilege, and that “Parasite” hinges on the disempowering anxiety of the poor not being able to set a plan for their own lives.
At this point in his career, so many of Bong’s subtler choices point back at (or exist in response to) his previous work. One particularly unexpected example that he mentions here: It’s pouring during the crucial sequence where Moon-gwang returns to the Park house because there was no rain in either “Okja” or “Snowpiercer,” and Bong missed shooting with something he used to such great effect in “Mother” and “Memories of Murder.”
10. Bong’s One Regret
Given the extent to which Bong plans his movies in advance — and the unimaginable success that approach made possible for “Parasite” — you might not think that he has any regrets about the choices that went into the making of this masterpiece. And, for the most part, he doesn’t (or at least he doesn’t admit to them). But there’s one moment towards the tail end of the commentary track where Bong second-guesses himself over a small grace note that most viewers might not have clocked on first watch: The bit where the amusingly unsubtle detective trailing Ki-woo trips in the background and pratfalls into a trash can.
Bong frets that it’s a little too much, and that the screwball energy of it all might clash with the wistful sobriety of what’s happening with Ki-woo at this point of the story, but he needn’t have worried. The artful dissonance between high and low (taken quite literally in this shot) is essential to the genre-defying approach of Bong’s domestic tragicomedy, and this beat proves why because it comes during the most solemn part of the movie, and not in spite of that.
“Parasite” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
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