South Korean director Bong Joon-ho on making awards history

Bong Joon-ho.
Bong Joon-ho.

NEW YORK • Even before he heard his name on the nominations telecast on Monday morning, Bong Joon-ho, the South Korean director of the six-time Oscar-nominated Parasite and a master of foreshadowing and suspense, spied what might have been a clue about his movie's ultimate fate.

One of the people tasked with reading the nominations, actor John Cho, is Korean-American. Was it a coincidence? Or an indication of - and face-saving concession to - the inevitable?

Either way, "he pronounced all of our names correctly", a grateful Bong pointed out through a translator, in a telephone interview on Monday afternoon from Los Angeles. "So that was memorable."

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

There is a rich, century-old film tradition in South Korea, but you are the first South Korean film-maker to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. How does it feel?

Of course, we don't make films for continents or countries - filmmakers create films for their personal dreams and obsessions. But despite that, it doesn't happen very often for an Asian or Korean film to get nominated for the Oscars. It's a very rare thing.

The Korean press are all very excited. It is almost like a national celebration.

Do you take pride in that achievement?

I'm very happy I didn't create this film on my own. I'm very grateful to all the people who created this film with me and all the teams that were involved in the campaign process.

Why do you think Korean cinema is having such a breakthrough moment now?

I think it just shows Parasite isn't a film that came out of nowhere. Korean cinema has a long history and Parasite is a continuation of the Korean films that came before. It's an extension of our history.

It's not the first time a Korean film has gone through something like this. Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden (2016) won a Bafta and, last year, Burning (directed by Lee Chang-dong) was a part of the shortlist (for what was then the foreign language film Oscar).

And there have been animated shorts from South Korea nominated for Oscars. So all of these developments over all of these years matured to lead to Parasite today.

Parasite is your seventh feature as a director. Did you have a sense when you were making it that it had the potential to make the impact that it has?

From Cannes to today in Los Angeles, we've experienced a series of all of these unexpected events with the film. Especially with the box office, it's done incredibly well around the world. And that's something we never expected.

I created this film because of the controversial aspects of the story and to take on these bold challenges, but I always worried how they would be received by the public and the wider world.

And I'm really happy to see the audience embrace the challenges that Parasite took on.

Critics have noted the film engages viewers on multiple levels at once - emotionally, physically and intellectually. What is the key to achieving that?

With my films, I want the audience to be physically and instinctively captivated while they are watching it. I want them to be sucked into the story. I want to grab them by the collar and shake them up.

Then, after two hours, they can go home and take a shower and lie in bed - and that is when they are hit with all of the intellectual, controversial and cerebral messages that the movie has to offer.

They become obsessed with what the film was trying to say and can't stop thinking about it. That is the kind of experience that I want to provide for my audience.

Last year, Roma also received foreign film and best picture nominations. Do you think film audiences are becoming more globalised?

I think audiences in the United States and the international community are opening up to more foreign language films, to cross-cultural, international films. I think the success Parasite has enjoyed in the US really reflects that.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2020, with the headline 'S. Korean director Bong on making awards history'. Subscribe