“Parasite,” a twisty look at a poor family’s attempts to insinuate itself into the lives of its rich employers, is a worldwide box office phenomenon, a critical sensation and a bona fide awards contender. It’s also the rare Korean film to be embraced in the United States, where it has racked up $12.5 million and counting to become the highest-grossing foreign language film of the year. Globally, it has sold more than $109 million in tickets. Clearly something remarkable is going on here, and it’s partly attributable to the way the movie’s subversive portrait of class tensions resonates at a time when economic inequality has become a dominant political issue.
It’s not just the politically driven fall film of choice for Bernie Sanders supporters. “Parasite” has exponentially raised the profile of writer-director Bong Joon Ho, who has earned a cult following over the past two decades with the likes of “Mother,” “The Host” and “Snowpiercer.” The success of “Parasite” is introducing Bong to a new generation of viewers, many of whom are likely unfamiliar with his previous work, allowing them to discover a director who is a master of shifting moods and blurring genres. “Parasite” is at once a black comedy, a searing social drama and a crackling thriller — often gliding from laughs to shocking violence in the same scene.
The film reunites Bong with Tom Quinn, the founder and CEO of indie studio Neon, which has been the director’s longtime distributor. The two have worked together on five of Bong’s seven films, forming a bond with the release of the monster movie “The Host,” when Quinn was a top executive at Magnolia. Their careers have often intersected over the years, most fortuitously with “Snowpiercer,” an adventure story set in a dystopic future in which humanity is forced to live on a massive train. The film’s release was imperiled when The Weinstein Co. chief Harvey Weinstein demanded 20 minutes of cuts. After Bong refused, Weinstein dumped the film with Radius-TWC, the company’s boutique label, which Quinn was then overseeing. The picture was eventually released unaltered to glowing reviews.
Quinn and Bong’s longtime collaboration will continue: Neon recently bought the rights to “Memories of Murder,” one of Bong’s early works, and plans to re-release it in theaters and on Blu-ray. The two took a break from the grueling demands of awards season, where Bong has been tirelessly promoting “Parasite” at major festivals and screenings, to discuss the state of cinema and their parallel and intertwining careers.
Why is “Parasite” resonating with audiences around the world?
Bong Joon Ho: I need more time to really understand. To be honest, my job ended in late March when I completed the film. Everything that happened from Cannes to now, I didn’t anticipate, predict or plan. The story is very universal. It’s a story about rich and poor. But maybe there is something more.
Tom Quinn: Some people have described the film as an “Upstairs, Downstairs” story. And I think it’s far more complex than that. I think there are no evildoers in this film, and there are no innocent bystanders either. I think it’s a circular relationship that every character has. And everyone in this movie is a parasite. You may live in Korea, I might live in the U.S., but we live in the country of capitalism.
It’s crossing over, and not just to a stereotypical older art-house audience, but to a younger audience. It speaks to issues in ways that relate all around the world. But it’s also an incredible piece of cinema. It’s so unexpected. When was the last time you went to the theater and you were surprised?
Bong: You’re right. It’s still a genre film, and I consider myself a genre filmmaker as well. But it’s true that it talks about our current reality.
What’s your opinion on the state of the movie business?
Quinn: I’ve been forever impressed with the health and state of the Korean film industry, that for over 20 years, Korea has been producing and making incredible films. But also, I think it has an incredibly vibrant
theatrical culture: Even with an immense amount of bandwidth, and high internet speed, and rampant piracy, people really go to the theater.
Bong: Both movie theaters and VOD are popular in Korea. There are multiplexes in all corners of every residential neighborhood, and we have many screens. Korea’s average movie attendance per person is probably the highest or the second-highest in the entire world. Korean filmmakers are very blessed.
I’m grateful that you mentioned the amazing explosion of Korean cinema in the past 20 years, and it does seem like that from the outside. But younger generations of filmmakers are going through a difficult time. Studios and financiers have become more particular and controlling, and it’s getting harder for directors to take risks. It’s different from when I debuted with “Barking Dogs Never Bite.” At the time, filmmakers were freer and could take bold risks. American films from the ’70s share a similar context. At that time, studio films that weren’t art-house, auteur, indie cinema were beautiful and powerful. Films by Scorsese, Coppola, Schlesinger, Pakula, Sidney Lumet … they were definitely studio films, but they had dignity, beauty and intense power. I’m not sure if U.S. studios are taking risks with such challenging and powerful films these days. It’s concerning.
Quinn: Yeah, you never want to make creative decisions with your wallet.
What do you think of the criticism leveled at Marvel movies by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and others who argue it’s not cinema?
Quinn: I would rank watching “Black Panther” with my family at 10 a.m. on Saturday at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn as one of the top experiences that I had that year. So I’m not sure I understand that argument.
Bong: I have so much respect for Scorsese and Coppola, and I grew up studying their films. So I fully understand the context of their comments and I respect their opinion. But on the other hand, if I look at the films individually, I enjoyed “Guardians of the Galaxy,” James Mangold’s “Logan” and “Winter Soldier” by the Russo Brothers. There are great cinematic moments in those films.
Would you direct a Marvel movie?
Bong: I have a personal problem. I respect the creativity that goes into superhero films, but in real life and in movies, I can’t stand people wearing tight-fitting clothes. I’ll never wear something like that, and just seeing someone in tight clothes is mentally difficult. I don’t know where to look, and I feel suffocated. Most superheroes wear tight suits, so I can never direct one. I don’t think anyone will offer the project to me either. If there is a superhero who has a very boxy costume, maybe I can try.
Quinn: Learn something new every day. God, I love that. But I always joke that with “Snowpiercer,” you already made your Marvel movie. Isn’t that “Winter Soldier: Part 2”?
Quinn: You’ve got Captain America.
Bong: Chris Evans slips on a fish. I don’t think that is Marvel’s sensibility.
Quinn: I would say that you have your own universe, that there are many overlapping things in all seven movies that you’ve made. It’s really fun to see scenes that could be connected and characters that could exist across multiple movies.
When did you meet?
Bong: Was it 2006?
Quinn: 2006. I saw “The Host” at Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. We bought the film later that evening. Bought it on a napkin at about 3 or 4 a.m., celebrated all night. But I didn’t meet you in Cannes. We met later at the Edinburgh premiere.
Bong: I was not there.
Quinn: You were there.
Bong: I was there? I don’t remember.
Quinn: We only spoke one word. That was it. We were walking down the street. It was after the premiere. We were going to go get a beer, and out of this bar rolls a whole gaggle of people. And it’s a scrum, and it looks like it’s going to turn into a fight. And you look at me and you go, “Trainspotting.” And I just thought that in one word, you sort of summed up everything that you are. I was like, “Oh, my God, he said one word in English and it’s cinema.”
You’ve done five movies together. What’s behind that bond?
Quinn: “The Host” for me was a really important film in my career, because I was just trying to find my own voice in the industry.
Bong: “The Host” was also quite important to me. It was my very first theatrical release here in the U.S.
Quinn: It was something that was so fantastical, and yet —
Bong: It’s a monster movie.
Quinn: It’s a monster movie, but I felt that the monster was a member of the family. It’s so emotional how this family connects. I remember we went and tested it in Paramus, and it was the first test screening I’d ever been to.
Quinn: Paramus, New Jersey. And it’s the first test score I’d ever seen, and it was a 50, which is a pretty low score. Top two boxes. And the audience had no idea how to talk about the movie.
Bong: It’s a very strange movie.
How did you get interested in movies?
Bong: I was a film geek. The American Army is in Korea. So American Forces Korea Network was a very specialized broadcasting channel at that time. Every Friday and Saturday night, there were movies. At that time, it was the 1970s and Korea was under military dictatorship. It was a very conservative mood. But on Friday night we could see some sex and violence. I was a little kid, but I came out to the living room by myself when my family was sleeping and watched those movies. Films by John Carpenter, Brian De Palma and Sam Peckinpah. And also, many B pictures. I loved studio films from the ’70s. Films by master studio filmmakers like John Frankenheimer, Alan Pakula, John Schlesinger. I also liked Spielberg’s ’70s films.
Quinn: My dad was a basketball coach overseas. I spent most of my life in Europe, until about 14, when I came back. It was probably a poor choice on his part, but he took me to see “Car Wash” at a very young age. And there were certain words that I’d never heard before, which I started using, much to the dismay of my mother. I would say, not until I was in college and I worked at a video store did I truly become a cinephile. That’s where I was introduced to movies like “Man Bites Dog.”
Bong: Wow. You recommended those kind of movies to people.
Quinn: All the time. All the time.
Bong: And people became very angry.
Quinn: “Man Bites Dog” still holds up today. But I would say probably the biggest influence for me is “Mad Max.”
Bong: The second one? First one?
Quinn: All of them. “Beyond Thunderdome,” I’ll do it all day long. The new one [“Fury Road”], I think director George Miller is absolutely extraordinary.
Bong: A few months ago I met George Miller in Sydney. He’s such a nice gentleman. I asked so many things about “The Road Warrior.” I’m a huge fan, crazy fan. I watched that more than 30 times. And his reply was “Bong, I cannot remember.” It was 40 years ago. And the new one is also amazing, “Fury Road.” I cried watching it. When the cars are swept into that big sandstorm and the music escalates, I felt like my soul was escalating too, and tears just came out of my eyes. I was like, “Wow, this is a master at work.”
Quinn: But listening to you talk about “Fury Road” is honestly how I feel about “Parasite.” For the longest time, “The Host” was my favorite film of yours, until I saw “Parasite.”
Bong: Oh, you hate “Mother.” You never liked that.
Quinn: I watched “Mother” again recently. It’s grown on me. It’s definitely grown on me.
Tom, what is it like being an independent distributor in a world that is dominated by these superhero movies?
Quinn: We think and talk about this all day long at Neon. It is really hard. Something that we hold near and dear, it’s cinema, and the experience of people coming together to see movies on the big screen. We’re agnostic about genre. We’re agnostic about language. We’re agnostic about size of film. But we hope that what we release every year represents 10 of the best films that you could find anywhere in the world. It so happens that almost half our slate this year were documentaries, and the other half were foreign language films, which traditionally have been considered as films that are undesirable theatrically. And that’s just not the case.
Bong, you worked with Netflix on “Okja.” What was your experience, and how did you feel about your movie not getting a proper theatrical release?
Bong: It was a complicated process to get “Okja” financed. The budget wasn’t small, and the visual effects cost a lot. So I’m still grateful for the support Netflix gave to the film. But because Netflix is a streaming company, they had strict rules against theatrical screenings. The producers and I tried very hard to screen the film at film festivals and small theaters in Korea, New York and L.A. Recently I met Noah Baumbach. And he worked with Netflix again on “Marriage Story,” which is a great movie. He said that they have a four-week exclusive theatrical window. I think the situation is getting better. I hope they become more flexible.
Quinn: To Bong’s point, they financed the film. They took the risk on “Okja,” and that’s to be applauded. [Quinn tried but failed to cut a deal carving out the theatrical rights.]
Bong: Ultimately, going to the theater is the best way to watch films. And it’s the only place where the audience can’t pause the film. The film will continue to play, and the audience has to watch it according to the rhythm the filmmaker created.
Quinn: The example that I always like to refer back to as a hypothetical is “Moonlight.” I don’t know that it would have become this galvanizing sensation on a streaming service.
Do you think the proliferation of more direct-to-consumer services, such as Disney Plus and HBO Max, is going to further erode the audience for theatrical movies?
Quinn: The exciting part is there are going to be so many new services that need films. And so that’s going to create a boom. It’s going to create a seller’s market, which is great for distributors like us, it’s great for filmmakers, it’s great for producers. At some point, it will be a lot of noise. And I firmly believe that the best way to break through the clutter is still a cinematic, theatrical launch for your film.
Bong: Simply speaking, as a film fan, I really want to watch movies like “The Lighthouse” and “Apollo 11” and “The Irishman” in the theater.
“Parasite” has a good chance of becoming the first Korean film to ever be nominated for the best picture Oscar, and Bong could be the first Korean director ever recognized. How do you feel about that?
Bong: The Academy voting system is complicated. Isn’t it difficult to predict? I don’t know. Korean cinema has a long history. There are many masters that have yet to be introduced to the Western audience. It would be great if people take more interest in Korean cinema due to my nomination.
Tom, can you talk about releasing “Snowpiercer,” which came about because of an ugly feud between Bong and Harvey Weinstein? Is it true that Weinstein dumped the movie on Radius, which enabled Bong’s cut of the movie to be screened?
Bong: It was a very happy ending. I kept my director’s cut. That’s the biggest blessing for a film director, and Tom helped me with that.
Quinn: Yeah, we were very lucky. When they were considering buying the movie, and they watched the promo in Toronto before they bought it, they asked me, “What’s Bong like?” I said, “Well, he’s never made a bad movie ever. So I’m sure it’s going to be great.” Then many, many, many, many months later, I was asked if we wanted to release it, and I said, “Absolutely. What happened?” And you know, I had the minor resolve to say to Harvey that if we’re going to do it, it has to be Bong’s cut.
Have you been approached about remaking “Parasite” in other languages given its popularity?
Bong: We’re still releasing the film, so I’m focused on that for now. I can’t pay a lot of attention to remakes at this point. But after the screening in Cannes, many friends of mine from many different countries were saying, “Wow, this story is definitely the same in the U.K.” And other friends would say, “Oh, this is a Hong Kong story.” Because the story’s universal, it can be remade in any country.
Quinn: I remember back with “The Host,” everyone was talking about a remake. I think it’s your movie, it’s your genre — it’s hard to replicate.
Bong, you’ve shifted between English-language films and films in Korean. Will that continue?
Bong: Actually, I am preparing two different projects. One is a Korean-language one, and the other one is an English-language one. Both projects are not big films. They’re the size of “Parasite” or “Mother.” The Korean film is located in Seoul and has unique elements of horror and action. It’s difficult to define the genre of my films. The English project is a drama film based on a true event that happened in 2016. Of course I won’t know until I finish the script, but it has to be set half in the U.K. and half in the U.S.
What are you doing together next?
Quinn: Anything that has his name on it, we’re happy to be a part of. I’ll just give you a blank check.
Bong: Whatever it is, I would like to do it with Tom.
This interview has been edited for clarity.