It’s October and the awards season is heating up. Big marquee films are bombarding theaters, and all the top run films are dividing audiences left and right. Yet as audiences debate the merits of clowns and space odysseys alike, there is one film that exceeds all expectations and has thrilled everyone who’s seen it: Bong Joon-ho’s brilliantly fascinating Parasite.
A true ensemble piece that is both a laugh riot and intriguing mirror to modern society’s class system, Parasite is anchored with flawlessly enchanting performances, chief among them is Song Kang-ho. One of the greatest South Korean actors in the business, Song returns to work work with Bong, who he’s previously made three movies together with. Whether it was the early entry in Bong’s filmogrpahy with Memories of a Murder, his creature feautre breakthrough The Host, or the genre-bending masterpiece Snowpiercer, Song has excelled in all their collaborations, and it is no different this time around. In the film, Song plays Kim Ki-taek, the erstwhile patriarch of an impoverished family living in the bowels of Seoul. It’s there that he and his family hatch a plan to ingratiate themselves into every facet of hired help for the Parks, an exceedingly wealthy family living in a mansion atop a hill. With the Parks not realizing that their children’s tutors are brother and sister, or that Song’s Mr. Kim is father to both of them as he becomes Mr. Park’s driver, it would appear the good times are here at last for the Kims.
We spoke with the charismatic actor during Parasite’s run at the New York Film Festival to discuss the working relationship between these two powerhouses of Korean cinema, the subtle nuances of their latest work, and the importance of Korean cinema to the world stage.
You have such a storied history with director Bong, do you even need to read the script when he asks you to be a part of his films or are you automatically onboard?
With director Bong, his style is not to complete a script and then give it to the actor. For a number of years, he will sort of drag this process out and sprinkle it with a few ideas and new things and will discuss them with me. So when the script comes, it’s not as a full surprise; I’ve been discussing the themes with him for awhile. He’s very meticulous, so once he’s exposed a certain number of ideas and images to me, there’s a sense of trust that is built.
In terms of the images he shares, this film has a lot of sections that are basically physical comedy, such as you crawling across the floor or the napkin in the bin. Do you have a say on how those will play out?
No, those scenes aren’t typically planned. That all comes out naturally while we’re filming. Actually, on set, when we were filming me crawling across the floor, I tried to make it look more comical than what appears. Director Bong tried to calm me down a little, and made it look a little more serious.
So he tried to reel in your performance, much like your onscreen son does when they are practicing that big plan to fool Mrs. Park. Do you find that you ever have to pull yourself back like that?
When I’m acting, I try to give the director a bunch of options. So I’ll play it out in multiple ways and I’ll leave it up to him to decide which is the most fitting.
It is such an interesting situation though, because you’re an actor having to play someone putting on an act, and do it so specifically. Is it hard to get into that headspace?
Actually, I wasn’t very satisfied with that setup [Laughs]. I felt like my character was not a good actor at all. The scene itself is something that is part of the whole drama, the whole narrative. So I played it out as bad acting, on the character’s part.
But even then, you have to think about how well you can play a bad actor.
Well, it can’t be too obvious to the audience that he is engaging in bad acting, I have to portray someone who is trying his best to do good acting, but he’s such an amatuer that it just looks a bit awkward. That was my intention and that is how I imagined that scene.
I was wondering what you think about the Kims’ motives at the beginning of the film. Obviously they know they are putting others out of work, but do you think they believe they are doing no harm?
Certainly their actions are not ordinary, and they’re not acceptable, per se, but I think from their perspective they’re trying not to create critical harm to other people, and they take a little bit of comfort knowing that they haven’t created any critical harm in their minds. There is a sense that yes, what we are doing isn’t necessarily completely right, but they are doing their best, as it is not their intention to cause harm.
What about your feelings on what the film is trying to say? I think a lot of people may think we are only supposed to see the Kims as being parasitic, but in reality, it is showing us that we all feed off each other in one way or another.
On the surface, the Kim family certainly looks parasitic. But really, as you said, there is a mutual interdependence between these families, and I really caught onto that as well. And that is not just between these two families, but that’s really how a large society is built; it is the makeup of our society. For instance, the Kim family, by being there, is filling the rich family’s needs. And the rich family, in its own way, is creating jobs for other people, and I think that from the director’s perspective, what he’s trying to say is, or what he is trying to shed light on, is not the parasitic aspect of the family, but rather that we must have a mutual respect for each other because we are interdependent. I really think he was trying to send a message of hope, that there is room, that there is reason to hope for reconciliation because there is this mutual need.
Both yourself and Director Bong seem to be able to reach worldwide audiences in a way that other international filmmakers cannot. Is it noticeable to you or do you actively work on finding ways to appeal to different types of audiences?
I don’t think about it at all. Of course I would hope that my acting can resonate across borders, but that’s not my focus. My focus is really to resonate with Korean audiences that is my primary concern.
Do you have any desires to take part in more international productions?
There have been a few opportunities to do exactly that, but for me as a person, in my world view, those challenges, those ambitions have not really been a big part of me, so that is not something that I intentionally try to create.
As great as Korean cinema has been for a very long time, it seems like it has been poised to take over the world stage; much like how filmmakers like Guierllmo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón led the big Mexican/Spanish push years ago. Is it noticeable to you?
I don’t think this is the moment where it is happening. It doesn’t feel very real, that the Korean industry is taking over. I certainly hope that it will but I think there are systematic features of the Korean film industry that I don’t know for sure if it will lead to something so big in America as the Japanese and Mexican film industries have enjoyed.
Even if we have something similar happen for Parasite like last year, where Roma was a Best Picture nominee in the Oscars, and not just relegated to the Foriegn Language category?
Thank you for the high expectations and kind words. [Laughs] I certainly hope so, but that is out of our hands, so I’m just happy with how people like the film.
To wrap things up, Director Bong recently gave his feelings on the capture of the man responsible for the murders which inspired another of your films with him, Memories of a Murder. I’m wondering how the situation resonates with you?
Yeah, it is certainly has been big news. It has been such a long time since the murders happened, but I feel that those events really left a deep scar in the fabric of our society. I was glad that he was caught, but at the same time I almost felt a little disappointed, frustrated, and sad, that our society still needs to go through these kinds of events that are very scarring and very traumatic. So my only hope is that events like this won’t happen again.
Parasite is in limited release right now. Go see it!