Anxiety and fear in film can't shine without humour, says Parasite director Bong Joon-ho

The South Korean director's black comedy film is nominated for six Academy Awards, including best director and best picture.

In a q interview, the South Korean director explains what inspired his biting tale of income inequality

Director Bong Joon-ho attends the AFI 2019 Awards luncheon in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 3, 2020. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Protagonists and antagonists. Superheroes and villains. The good guy and the bad guy.

These character archetypes are so prevalent that it seems almost impossible to tell a story without them. You have to have someone to root for and someone to root against. How else are you going to lead audiences in the direction you want them to go?

Someone forgot to tell that to Bong Joon-ho.

The South Korean director's latest film, Parasite, follows two families, one rich and one poor, as they worm their way into each other's lives.

Going into the film, preconceived notions might motivate viewers to lean in favour of one family over the other, given the way stories involving the rich and the poor have gone in the past. But Bong has made it clear that those storytelling elements — the clear villains and the clear heroes — do not exist in his black comedic blockbuster.

"I wanted to tell the story with a more subtle and realistic approach," he told q host Tom Power, with the help of his interpreter Sharon Choi. "More than anything else, I really wanted to be honest."

Bong draws parallels to our everyday lives. He says that, in reality, people fall within a "kind of grey zone" of morality — we're not all good or all bad.

"It's always very difficult to find out the real angel or the evil demon in our daily life," he said. "We are all mixed. … We just fight with each other amidst that chaos, and that's something that I wanted to mirror with Parasite."

That decision has paid off for Bong. Parasite grossed over $100 million USD internationally, making it the most financially successful film of Bong's career.

The film was also a major success in terms of accolades won. It started with the Palme d'Or — the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival — and has since grown into a Golden Globe Award for best foreign language film and six Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best director.

All of those achievements are South Korean firsts.

'I was very greedy'

Bong's directorial vision has a lot to do with the foreign films he watched growing up in 1970s and 1980s South Korea.

"At the time, there was no official cinema tech in South Korea. Also, at the time, there was no DVD or internet, so I was very greedy," he said. "So many American and European films I watched — Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, always the [Alfred] Hitchcock [sic]."

Bong Joon-Ho (left) and Quentin Tarantino pose during the 18th Busan International Film Festival on Oct. 11, 2013. Bong said he watched a lot of American and European films growing up. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

He was also influenced by the scenes that he didn't get to watch due to South Korea's censorship laws. He recalls watching certain movies and, despite not having seen the film previously, noticing missing scenes.

"At the time I was a kid, but I imagined, 'Wow, something disappeared. Something was cut out between this shot and that shot,'" he said.

To make up for the missing context, Bong would use his creativity to fill in the blanks on his own.

"I always tried to imagine what kind of very scary shot was there between the shots."

Fear, anxiety and humour

That imagination helped Bong become one of the most respected directors in the black comedic genre. 

"During screenwriting or shooting the film, I never actually intended it or calculated it," he said. "It just happened very naturally during all [sic] the process of my filmmaking."

When you have a comedic moment and then fear overwhelms you, the fear is maximized.- Bong Joon-ho

While most horror directors might shy away from including comedic elements in their films for fear of making light of a tense movie, Bong argues that humour amplifies a scary film's fear factor. 

"When you have a comedic moment and then fear overwhelms you, the fear is maximized," he said. "And when you feel fear and you get anxious and suddenly you have a comedic moment, that also relaxes the audience."

Bong says that humour also allows fear and anxiety to really shine, and that allows his deeper, darker themes to settle into an audience "like a parasite."

Oscar anxiety

The 92nd Academy Awards ceremony will be held on Sunday, Feb. 9, in Los Angeles, Calif. Bong will be one of the many award hopefuls attending the event — Parasite was nominated for six Oscars.

"I become more anxious the bigger the award is," he said. "I'm like, 'Okay, now what am I gonna do? If my next film is bad people will say bad things about me.'"

Bong Joon-ho poses the Golden Globe for best foreign language film for Parasite. It’s the first South Korean film to win the award. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

But Bong says he thrives off of that anxiety, and it motivates him to be more meticulous in the entire filmmaking process.

"Anxiety is a source of my strength," he said. "That's why I work so hard on creating a storyboard and I work like crazy during the pre-production process. I become more of a control freak because of my anxiety."

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Vanessa Greco.


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