For the first time, a director from South Korea have been nominated for a Golden Globe award – the latest in an ongoing flurry of accolades for Bong Joon-ho and his dark social satire, Parasite. The film's already won the Palme d'Or, a New York Film Critics Circle Award, and it was named the year's best film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Now, speculation's flying as to whether Parasite could be the first-ever foreign language film to win a Best Picture Oscar.
All this buzz doesn't happen on its own. The famously charming director – and his translator Sharon Choi – went on a protracted publicity push in Los Angeles last autumn, logging hundreds of interviews over a period of a week. By the time they talked with NPR, they were clearly a little slaphappy.
"So with this interview, he wants to try not using any of the words he's been using so far," Choi laughed. Those words, Bong offered in English, include "class," "class warfare," "next project" and "Harvey Weinstein."
Bong famously clashed with the disgraced producer when The Weinstein Company distributed his 2013 movie Snowpiercer. These days, Bong said firmly of Weinstein, "I've forgotten everything about him."
No such amnesia applied when it came to the filmmaker's own artistic influences. As it happens, the international success of Parasite coincides with the centennial of Korean film, a history that began with the 1919 movie Fight for Justice.
"Time piles on and now we've reached the 100th anniversary," Bong mused in Korean as Choi translates. "Compared to Japanese or Hong Kong film, the history of Korean cinema is relatively lesser known to American and European audiences. I hope, due to the opportunities that have arisen from Parasite, people will realize that Korean cinema has also had a lot of masters."
When asked to share a few of these masters, Bong was pleased. He switched back to English. "I will introduce two films that are very accessible and easy to watch," he said, and offered his recommendations for The Housemaid, directed by Kim Ki-Young, and Secret Sunshine, directed by Lee Chang Dong.
The Housemaid, from 1960, can be watched for free in its entirety on YouTube – the version gorgeously restored in 2008 by the Korean Film Archive. Bong talks about the movie on the 2013 Criterion Collection edition of the 1960 film.
He told NPR that Parasite is intended, in ways, as a Housemaid homage. "Parasite is something similar," he acknowledged.
Both films can be described as "domestic Gothic," says Grady Hendrix, co-founder of the New York Asian Film Festival. Hendrix points out that the plots of both Parasite and The Housemaid concern an upwardly mobile family whose stability is threatened by an interloper (or interlopers) arriving in the form of household help.
In The Housemaid, Hendrix says, "She's this disruptive influence who's poisoning people with rat poison and having an affair with the husband and killing the kids. It's this real Gothic nightmare, and it spawned several remakes. It was a big hit at the time — an enormously influential Korean movie."
Secret Sunshine, Bong's second film recommendation, stars two of the main actors who also appear in Parasite. Directed in 2007 by Lee Chang Dong, Secret Sunshine is about a widow's grief. As with Parasite, there's a shocking twist. One thing all of these movies have in common, says Hendrix, is that they address the fragilities of what viewers in the U.S. would call the American Dream.
"It's this real sense that the ice is very, very thin," he says. Bong says Parasite was intended to be bittersweet.
"So I don't want to think as a person or creator I've become pessimistic about the world," he said through Choi. "But with Parasite, I really wanted to be honest. I didn't want to spread random hope to the audience. I really wanted to reflect the truth of current times."
So he's made a domestic Gothic drama – complete with scheming maids, people locked in basements, and a bloody birthday party – for the whole world.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The hit film from South Korea "Parasite" has added three Golden Globe nominations to its growing list of accolades. The movie's director, Bong Joon-ho, is a rising star, and NPR's Neda Ulaby recently had a chance to sit down and talk with him about what this year, marking a hundred years of Korean filmmaking, means.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: I caught director Bong Joon-ho at the end of a hectic publicity push. This must have been his hundredth interview in a week, he said. And he and his interpreter, Sharon Choi, were a little slaphappy.
BONG JOON-HO: (Speaking Korean).
SHARON CHOI: So with this interview, he wants to try not using any of the words he's been using so far.
ULABY: Words director Bong is officially tired of includes...
CHOI: (Laughter) Class...
BONG: Class warfare, very first idea and next project - and (laughter).
ULABY: Director Bong may also be getting tired of the word Oscar. It's widely speculated that "Parasite" could be the first-ever foreign language film to win best picture at the Academy Awards.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARASITE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Korean).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Korean).
ULABY: This story about a rich family and a poor one sharing a house is already the year's highest-grossing foreign language film. It's enraptured audiences partly for the actors' shining performances.
BONG: I set them free.
ULABY: Director Bong Joon-ho says his style has everything to do with his predecessors.
BONG: (Through interpreter) Now we've reached the hundredth year of Korean cinema, and I hope people will discover that Korean cinema has also had a lot of masters.
ULABY: Like who?
BONG: So many - 200, 300 at least. (Through interpreter) but I will introduce two films that are very accessible and easy to watch.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BONG: ...By Kim Ki-young, the 1960s master.
ULABY: "The Housemaid" came out in 1960. It remains hugely influential. Director Bong Joon-ho says the story is...
BONG: Something similar to the "Parasite."
ULABY: If you've seen "Parasite," you may recognize the story of an upwardly mobile family with an interloper in the form of the family maid.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HANDMAID")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Korean).
ULABY: Grady Hendrix has seen lots of Korean movies. He co-founded the New York Asian Film Festival.
GRADY HENDRIX: And she's this disruptive influence who's poisoning people with rat poison and having an affair with the husband and killing the kids. And it's this real Gothic nightmare. And that spawned several remakes. It was a big hit at the time. It's an enormously influential Korean movie.
ULABY: And helped establish a genre to which "Parasite" belongs.
HENDRIX: This sort of drama of domestic Gothic.
ULABY: Scheming maids, people locked in basements or bloody birthday parties may reflect the anxieties of a country where families remain divided across borders and class mobility is relatively new. Still, says Grady Hendrix, those fears are hardly limited to South Korea.
HENDRIX: It's this real sense that the ice is very, very thin and the raft of money you've built could go under at any moment.
ULABY: Which brings us to Director Bong Joon-ho's second film recommendation.
BONG: "The Secret Sunshine" (ph) by Lee Chang-dong.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SECRET SUNSHINE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking Korean).
ULABY: "Secret Sunshine" from 2007 stars two of the main actors in "Parasite." It's about a widow's grief. And like "Parasite," there's a shocking twist. All these movies face the fragility of what we'd call here the American dream, says Grady Hendrix, and perhaps that's propelled "Parasite's" success worldwide.
HENDRIX: And if the movie has a thesis statement that's stated over and over throughout with all the subtlety of a concrete block being dropped on your head, it is that life laughs at your plans. Poor people shouldn't dream of being rich because you won't get there; rich people shouldn't dream of safe because you aren't safe.
ULABY: Still, director Bong Joon-ho says "Parasite" was intended to be bittersweet.
BONG: (Through interpreter) So I don't want to think that, as a person or as a creator, I've become pessimistic about the world. But with "Parasite," I really wanted to be honest. I didn't want to spread random hope to the audience. I really wanted to reflect the truth of our current times, and I think the ending of this film really reflects that as well.
ULABY: And reflect them with a domestic Gothic drama for the world.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.