What do you think about today’s films and directors? Is there a movie that impressed you recently?
Recently, I watched the two horror films Hereditary and Midsommar by Ari Aster, and they were very memorable and the filmmaker is a very unique person. And Ali Abbasi’s film called Border -it’s a very unique, independent film, very powerful. I highly recommend it, it’s such a strange and great movie. But very grotesque...
How old were you when you thought that you could be a filmmaker and what were the films that influenced you?
I’m not sure, but maybe around 11 or 12 years old, when I was in middle school in Korea. At that time I had already made up my mind to be a director. I was a huge fan of films ever since I was little, I watched so many films, almost a little too many. There were no cinematheques in South Korea and also, of course, no internet or DVDs. So, I watched a lot of films that were on TV and cable channels. When I was eight
or nine, I was a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies and overwhelmed by his suspense. And slowly as I became more and more fascinated by those films, my interest turned to what happens behind the camera, who creates these films? And so, I started to discover more names of directors and I started memorizing them and naturally I wanted to become a filmmaker.
How about Asian filmmakers and their movies?
So many. I am a huge fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the Japanese horror master, and also Kim Ki-young, he passed away many years ago. He was the Korean author, the Korean master in the 60s and 70s. Parasite takes a huge inspiration from his classic movie The Housemaid. That movie is already released by Criterion DVD here, so I strongly recommend it. Also, when I was at university, I was a huge fan of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, the great Taiwanese directors. I was in the cinema club, so I studied so many wonderful Asian films.
I was absolutely dazzled by your movie Parasite. I think it’s one of the most brilliant films I’ve ever seen. What gave you the inspiration for the film and how did you start?
I worked as a tutor when I was in college. I tutored for a very rich family in a very big house and I taught a middle school boy there. And the boy one day took me to the second floor to the private sauna, it was a very big extravagant one. So, I remember having this very strange feeling that I was spying on the private lives of complete strangers and feeling like I was infiltrating that rich house. And so those were some of the inspirations for this film. I just remember imagining what would happen if I take all my friends and infiltrate their houses one by one.
What inspires your way of filmmaking, your technique?
There’s a famous book that relays the conversation that Hitchcock had with Tru aut, and that’s a book that I read many times during my studies. And I’m always curious about how Hitchcock shot his films and I also have a lot of books of Hitchcock’s storyboards and every time
I create films and think about films I always go back to those materials. And I always draw the storyboards myself, with Parasite, everything was drawn by me. And I shoot according to my storyboard.
What I found fascinating about the movie was the examination of economic class structure, the social di erences. What was the idea here?
To be honest, when the poor family enters the house, it’s not as if the intention is to become rich, they don’t have jobs and all they want is jobs. And if you look at the protagonist of the Kim family, they are completely normal, capable smart people, they are not lazy losers. But sadly they don’t have jobs, and I think that’s the current state of not only Korea, but countries all over the world, where people without problems don’t have jobs. In the very last part of the movie, the young son says I will buy this house for my father. It’s quite sad. Maybe he already knows it’s impossible. I felt very sad and complicated when I wrote that line. I think that really talks about the gap between the rich and poor, and the polarization that’s so prevalent in society these days.
How deep is the gap between the rich and the poor in Korea?
Korea is now a wealthy country, it has endless development. And I think this applies to other first world countries as well. But the richer the country becomes, the wider the relative gap becomes. People feel the sense of inferiority and the richer the country is, the gap just seems even wider. And I think this applies not only to Korea, but to the U.S. and other countries. So, I don’t think it’s just Korea but it is any country around the world going through similar states.
You said you got emotional when you wrote a line. Is script writing an emotional process for you? What kind of process is it for you?
This is a little embarrassing to admit, but I do tend to get very emotional when I’m writing a script, because it’s a very solitary process and often I write late in the night and that’s when I would get pretty emotional. Sometimes I write some dialogue, sometimes I cry at the lines that I write. But you know next morning, when I read that dialogue again in the bright morning, it really sucks.
As a director, how hard was it to balance these outrageous comedic elements with real drama, social drama, which is behind all this?
People often ask me how I mix genres and how I am able to shift tones so naturally, but I don’t really know how to answer. For me, I am never aware that I’m doing that.
Maybe for me it’s much more difficult to keep a same tone for the whole two hours, it’s a much too difficult task for me. So, whether you call it genre or atmosphere I always like multiple elements to be intertwined simultaneously, that’s always more comfortable and natural to me. And also, because this is all based on emotions, and emotions are always intertwined. If the tone shifts from A to B, there’re already elements of B in A, and elements of A in B, so even as the tone shifts, it’s not considered this drastic change for me.
Can you describe what it was like to show this film first in Cannes, and to receive the highest award?
Initially, I was quite nervous to screen the film in Cannes. This was my first Korean language film in a while after Snowpiercer and Okja, and I really had a great experience just filling the film with very Korean details and nuances. And so, I was curious and sort of worried how a Western audience would respond. But then just after the screening in Cannes and then, the Sydney Film Festival and Germany, and also Telluride and Toronto, in many different countries with many different audiences, the reaction was almost the same. The great responses are pretty immediate, and people seem to laugh at the same time, cry at the same time, so I felt pretty relieved to see such responses. And I thought about why, why are the responses so similar? And I think in the end, it’s because the story about the rich and poor is very universal. After screening this film in many countries, the conclusion that I came to is that the story has gotten such similar responses because currently we live in this one giant nation of capitalism. Capitalism just surrounds us in our daily life, and I think that’s why.
Where did you put your Palme d’Or in your house?
In the border of my kitchen and living room, there is quite a good spot there.
As a South Korean director and artist, how easy or hard has it been to navigate and to reach the highest cinema corridors in the world?
When I shoot in Korea, I’m very lucky. I receive a lot of support from the industry. So, I’m very lucky and my producers and financers, they were very supportive while I was making Parasite. And during the whole post-production, they just left me alone, they said nothing. I really had total freedom. On the other hand, with that freedom comes a sense of responsibility and I am not the face of the Korean film industry but because I receive a lot of support, I always strive to create the best film.
A director like Roland Emmerich, started making films in Germany, and he left for Hollywood and never went back. And then there is Pedro Almodóvar, who makes films in Spain, was invited to Hollywood but said he wanted to continue making movies in his native tongue. You have kind of dabbled in both a little bit, I mean Okja used American actors How did you find that experience? Do you find it creatively allows you to do something di erent or was it more comforting when you made Parasite, in your own country with your own actors?
My first English film was Snowpiercer and even at the time, it wasn’t as if I put up a flag declaring to the world that I wanted to work in Hollywood. Snowpiercer is based on a French graphic novel and it’s about the survivors of humanity. So, naturally the story required actors from various countries. It would be very strange to just have South Koreans and North Koreans in a train that holds humanity’s sole survivors. In Okja, a Netflix movie, the movie itself is a mixture of Korean and American locations. And there are also Korean language characters and English language characters, it’s all a mixture, it’s a cross-country, an international kind of filmmaking. Technically speaking, I don’t think I’ve made a pure Hollywood film so far. And I also shot an omnibus film called Shaking Tokyo in Japan with Japanese actors. Where I shoot my films, the country doesn’t matter. Wherever it is, as long as I’m guaranteed creative control, I would like to work anywhere.