The Intriguing Production Background History of Parasite
Parasite is a film reflective of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s own real-life experiences. In his early 20s, he managed to take a job as a tutor for the son of an extremely wealthy family. He could only obtain such a job because of a recommendation from his girlfriend, who was tutoring the son at the time. The family wanted another tutor for math, and he got the job despite admittedly being terrible at math. And thus, the inspiration for Parasite came to be.
First, Bong sent a 15-page treatment for half of Parasite to Barunson E&A and CJ Entertainment (Korean studios) with a budget of $12 million. His production assistant Han Jin Won, who had just worked with him on Snowpiercer, was employed to research the script of Parasite. It was a long and arduous process; Han himself described the work as preventing him from sleeping. He interviewed real-life working-class citizens (housekeepers, tutors, and chauffeurs) around the Seoul area. Additionally, Han would photograph the lower-class and upper-class neighborhoods as well.
Before Parasite’s script was finished, Bong chose co-star longtime collaborator Song Kang-ho as the Kim family patriarch. Song has an extensive history of working with Bong Joon-ho on The Host (2006), Snowpiercer (2013), and Memories of Murder (2003).
At the end of the research process, three different versions of the script came to be. Parasite (2019) was screened worldwide and became a global sensation––landing six Oscars and paving the way for other foreign films to receive critical acclaim in Hollywood. Parasite is the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars in 2020.
Bong Joon-ho’s Filmography
Bong Joon-ho’s sensibilities as a director can first be seen in his dark humor, cynical worldview, and easily discern thematic patterns within his filmography. It is displayed in the intentional stylistic approach of his camera movement, production design, and mise-en-scene throughout most of his films. His first film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, released in 2000, exhibits his interpretation of what makes a film darkly humorous while also showing his competency for unique camera movement. It can be argued that this film is his weakest work. However, it’s important to note that Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) marked the start of his twenty years of filmmaking that would critique class.
Bong’s films would continue the trend of exhibiting class commentary in Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Mother (2009), Snowpiercer (2013), and Okja (2017). While each film is unique in terms of narrative structure, one can see the thematic pattern that critiques class throughout.
What Happens In Parasite?
The story of Parasite follows two families: the destitute and lower-class Kim family & the wealthy and upper-class Park family. Kim Ki-woo, played by Choi Woo-sik, can obtain a job as a tutor for the rich Parks through a friend’s recommendation. The narrative takes an entertaining and comedic turn as Ki-woo seizes the opportunity to get his sister hired as the art teacher for the Parks’ little boy under the guise that they are not directly related. Soon after, through some string-pulling behind the scenes, Ki-woo and his sister get their father hired as the Park family’s chauffeur. And eventually, their mother infiltrates the Parks’ as well by getting hired as their new housekeeper.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter Bong Joon-ho stated that,
“This idea of a poor family infiltrating the lives of a rich one is where I first delved in,” says Bong, adding that his intellectual ideas for the project — many critics have interpreted the film as a scathing critique of capitalism and income inequality — came much later in his process. “It was more like putting these characters together in a very controlled environment and then watching the chemical reactions unfold.”
Parasite’s Strong Thematic Structure
Throughout all his works, one theme that cuts across is the economic struggles of the working and lower classes and how poverty changes people. A theme that is blatantly pervasive in Parasite as his individual agency as a director is evident in the film’s overall narrative structure. And as Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus, Parasite highlights the individualistic artistic integrity of his directorial authorship––taking the institutional, curatorial, and structural aspects of his filmmaking.
The production design and lighting have set up two very distinct homes that are integral to portraying the symbolic language and circumstances in which both families are in. The Kims live in a cramped, messy, basement-like apartment that gets little sunlight through their window. In comparison, the Parks live in an ostentatiously beautiful mansion with large windows bathing them in sunlight. Windows are prevalent in the design of both houses. When the Kims look through the window of their home, they are sometimes greeted by fumigation gas and see the occasional drunk guy who urinates outside their window with little to no privacy. In stark contrast, when the Parks look out their window, they only see a spacious, lush, and beautiful garden that is private only to them. This design aspect helps tie into the allegory of stairs prevalent in Parasite. Since the Kim family lives in a semi-basement apartment in a lower-class neighborhood, when traveling to and from the Park family’s home, they move up towards the upper-class neighborhood or down towards the lower-class neighborhood. Intentional framing shot composition and camera movement solidify this metaphor of stairs representing the socioeconomic status between the destitute and the wealthy.
Parasite demonstrates a link between the body of work and the director’s creative intent because of the thematic patterns that can be discerned throughout and how it reflects the circumstances concerning the pitfalls of capitalism and income inequality. In the film, this can be interpreted as “when one is poor, it’s a dog-eat-dog-world. And everyone must fend for themselves.” Lower class solidarity is not evident in Parasite, as two low-income families are in life and death conflict with the other to maintain the fragile economic leverage and stability that they have while working for the wealthy, upper-class but oblivious Park family.
Overall, Bong Joon-ho’s films exhibit certain insights concerning how the effects of economic systems can trap, suffocate, and destroy those oppressed within them. And he doesn’t offer any easy or simple solutions. The ending of Parasite is one where the system is unchanged, and the main characters remain trapped within it. Thus, Parasite can be considered Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus.