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Bong Joon Ho Had No Idea ‘Parasite’ Would Become an Oscar-Winning Hit: ‘Many of Us Would Like to Be Rich’

Bong Joon-ho
Courtesy of Asian Film Awards

After flying into France to open the Cannes Film Festival in Korean on Tuesday night, “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho took a trip down memory lane.

Speaking at an on-stage interview Wednesday in front of a public audience, who accorded him a standing ovation on arrival, Bong discussed his early cinema experiences, the good and bad sides of video streaming and his obsession with mass murderers.

“I had no idea that ‘Parasite’ would be a such a global hit. Its success was far beyond my expectations. Though I made it in exactly the same way as normal,” said Bong. “And I remain unchanged by it. I mean look at me, I’m exactly the same.”

Bong said that he is currently enjoying revisiting the class war subject matter at the heart of his Palme d’Or- and Oscar-winning film, albeit as part of a team working on a “Parasite” series.

“The subject continues to have resonance in France and elsewhere. Many of [us] would like to be rich, but I think in all of us there is a fear of becoming poor,” said Bong. “I’m involved in the HBO adaptation [of ‘Parasite’]. It will be a black comedy. I’m working in close cooperation with screenwriter Adam McKay. This time I’m giving my input as a producer.”

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He said that he has already been working for three years on his next film, an animation project. “It was inspired by a French scientific book that my wife bought and brought home. The pictures of the sea creatures were extraordinary. After that my imagination took over.”

The director, who only took up filmmaking after university studies in sociology, however, played down suggestions that the subject had much enduring influence on his filmmaking. “Honestly, I was a very bad student. And I can barely read my notes from those days.”

“I made ‘Memories of Murder’ 17 years after the real events. And so I threw myself into the research. I interviewed everyone I could, detectives, local journalists, but one person escaped, the murderer himself. I always wondered what he looked like, about his face. I became so obsessed that he started to appear in my dreams,” said Bong. It was another 16 years after the 2003 film that the man was caught. “There has been discussion about whether he has seen it. Some people say he has watched it many times. A policeman told me that [the murderer] watched and thought it was mediocre.”

Bong revealed another obsession, making at least three references in an hour to the former military regime that ruled South Korea when he was growing up, and was known for its heavy-handed and censorious rule. “Korean society is moving so fast today,” he said. “Things that happen in other countries over a period of years can happen in Korea in just a few months.”

Obsession may run in the family. Bong described his mother as a germophobe who worried about her four children picking up diseases on visits to the cinema. Fortunately, she did not stop them going.

Bong said he remembers watching films including “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Sound of Music” at an early age and being struck by cinema’s ability to totally immerse its audience. “When we went to see ‘Sound of Music,’ it was broad daylight. Three and a half hours later when we came out it was dark.”

That was in line with his comments on the duel between streaming services such as Netflix and theatrical cinema.

“We can’t compare the experience of streaming with the scale of going to the cinema, the sound, the shared experience. There is no chance to hit pause. We are even a little imposed on. The audience becomes submerged by the film experience,” said Bong.

“I watched Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ in a theater in Korea. It was really great. Then I met Scorsese himself later in Los Angeles. He told me a story about visiting his doctor, who was streaming the film, 15 minutes at a time.”

But Bong said that streaming platforms’ support for filmmaking was “ironic.” “ ‘The Irishman’ was financed by Netflix after it had been rejected by all the studios. The same is true of my film ‘Okja,’” he said. “Okja” remains one of the few Netflix films which was presented in competition in Cannes in 2017. A year later, the festival banned streaming films from its main competition.