To say that Bong Joon-ho’s latest film, Parasite, is attracting attention ahead of its UK release in February would be something of an understatement. Having already topped many end-of-year lists in territories blessed with an earlier release schedule – not long after becoming the first-ever Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes – the hype is very real and richly deserved.
If 2020 marks the year when Bong manages to fully cement his reputation as a household name amongst a global audience of filmgoers, then the same may well be true for his long-time collaborator: the celebrated actor Song Kang-ho. The pair have worked together numerous times since 2003’s Memories of Murder and Kang-ho’s performance crowns Parasite with a level of pathos that helps the film cohere beautifully in its final moments.
We sat down with Song to discuss his thoughts about Parasite’s subject matter, the reasons for it becoming such a big international success and to find out what he thinks of being compared to Robert De Niro or Toshiro Mifune.
Tom Duggins: Parasite is getting a lot of love on social media, there’s been a huge amount of buzz internationally for it. Have you had a look at what people are saying on Twitter?
Song Kang-ho: I haven’t been looking at it myself, but I am hearing about a lot of it. It will be released in the UK in February, which is quite late on in the process. I’m really looking forward to hearing what British audiences have to say about the film.
TD: On the topic of online hype, the memory jingle which your daughter in the film (Park So-dam) recites has become a meme. Do you wish that your character had a meme as well?
SK: Ki-taek doesn’t have any songs which could go viral, but in Korea, one of his lines became very popular and went viral, which is where he says to his son: “Oh, you have a plan.”
TD: What is it about that line that caught on do you think?
SK: That line sounds positive, but it also carries negative connotations. It’s something you can quote in any situation and I think that’s why it really took off in Korea.
TD: At the moment, it feels like Korean culture – internationally – is becoming more and more popular. There’s K-Pop, of course, but Parasite could well become one of the biggest Korean films ever, in terms of global popularity. Do you have any thoughts on why Korean culture is gathering so much interest and excitement?
SK: I’m not very familiar with K-Pop, but with cinema – and Parasite in particular – I think Korean cinema carries this destructive dynamic and sensibility. Korean culture in itself is very dynamic and I think that’s why K-Pop is so popular as well. It’s a dynamic form of music, and that draws people in and makes them go crazy.
TD: When I’ve been reflecting on Bong Joon-ho’s work over the last decade, it struck me that he’s chosen to tackle quite big ideas in his films. In Snowpiercer and Parasite, the idea of class and inequality is very prevalent. Okja was concerned with animal welfare and environmentalism. Do you think Parasite is capturing people’s imaginations partly because of the present political climate, globally?
SK: I think Parasite has earned such a great response because, essentially, the entire world is living under one giant structure – the structure of capitalism – and it’s a very honest portrayal of how we live our lives within that system. It’s a very sharp satire of our current state and it’s also a very raw and realistic portrayal of our reality and that’s why it’s gained such a great response.
TD: The last film you worked on with Bong Joon-ho – Snowpiercer – had a big international cast. This is his first Korean-only production in a while, I wonder if you feel those experiences working outside Korea have changed anything when working on Parasite?
SK: I can’t really speak to the inner workings of director Bong, but with Okja and Snowpiercer he’s been able to take on many challenges and experiment, and the films were big successes. I think it was time for director Bong to work with a full Korean cast and crew again because this is such a Korean story. I don’t think director Bong has any long-term master plan for the future, however. I think as an artist, he will follow impulses and choose the projects he wants to work on at the moment.
TD: There’s a scene at the beginning of the film where the Kim family are putting together pizza boxes to earn some much-needed cash. Did you have any monotonous jobs early in your career, when you were starting out?
SK: Not folding pizza boxes! Mostly, I did a lot of manual labour at construction sites. I did a lot of that when I was young.
TD: Carrying bricks and cement around?
SK: Yeah, working on a construction site doing various things. I did it because the daily rate of pay was pretty high.
TD: It’s been said about your performances that you have an ‘everyman’ quality that you bring to some of these roles. I think that’s very true of Kim Ki-taek in Parasite. Do you think that kind of life experience – working as a labourer – has contributed to that in any way?
SK: Of course, there might be some influence in my performances, but it’s not as if I intentionally sought out those experiences for my acting career. For actors, everyone goes through a difficult period early on and you do these sorts of jobs.
TD: An idea that gets repeated in the film a few times is that of ‘crossing the line’, with respect to how we behave around others, our social interactions. Is that idea also there for you with your fellow actors when working on a scene together?
SK: To be honest, I think with acting, you always have to cross the line. How provocative you are in crossing the line is the fundamental essence of creating art and being an artist.
TD: I was thinking about it in terms of working through a scene, as well. A line is the thing that’s prepared for you to say, but it’s also how we mark out our personal space and guard against other people.
SK: I don’t keep any notion of certain lines that shouldn’t be crossed. I want my fellow actors to feel like they are free and can give any kind of performance, whatever seems natural. I think all actors would feel that way and I think it’s what the director would want as well.
TD: Something Parasite does really well is to play with our sympathies, especially between the two different families. I think it’s possible to see the Kim family as lovable rogues but also perhaps quite villainous as well. I wonder how you see the families at the heart of the story.
SK: On the surface, the Kim family does take on this abnormal position, almost like poachers, but it’s not as if they’re a criminal group that intends to commit crimes. I think if you look at their actions and the journey they take, there’s an element of satire to their whole process. Through their journey, we get to witness the worldly desires and ambitions and personal desires that we all have as human beings, and I think it’s a satire on those kinds of desires and ambitions. They’re definitely not bad people. The surface-level actions they commit, we see it, but we understand their actions and we are allowed to sympathise with their motivations. The same is true for Mr Park’s character, there’s no negative portrayal of that class either: the Park family are nice people who make an effort to gain their wealth. They’re not the villains of this story, in this story, there are no villains. To think about the title – Parasite – the question isn’t ‘which family is the parasite?’ There’s no dichotomy to the story, anyone can be the parasite and I think that’s something the film wants you to consider.
TD: People have compared your relationship with Bong Joon-ho to that between other directors and actors who frequently collaborate: De Niro and Scorsese, or perhaps Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. Do you ever think about your relationship with Bong Joon-ho in that way?
SK: I never watch films by those directors and think about my relationship with director Bong. I think it would be a dream for any actor to work with director Bong and it’s not really up to the actors whether you forge these relationships. For me, it’s just a matter of fate and destiny.
Bong Joon-ho’s Bafta and Oscar-nominated Parasite is released in UK cinemas on 7 February.