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Body odor class gap guided Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite'

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Director tells of Palme d'Or winning film, persona

By Park Jin-hai

Bong Joon-ho. Yonhap
Bong Joon-ho. Yonhap
Director Bong Joon-ho, who won Cannes' top prize with "Parasite," has said more about his film and actor Song Kang-ho, whom he calls his "persona."

His tragicomedy, telling the story of two families of extremely different social backgrounds, one poor and one wealthy, allowed him to become the first Korean director to win the Palme d'Or last Saturday.

Mentioning that the widening rich-poor gap is a worldwide issue these days, Bong said he wanted to evade the typical way of depicting the two different social classes. "It is a very familiar scene where those poor and righteous people with great a cause join forces to fight against those vile, greedy and violent rich people. But I don't think this reflects the reality," the director said during an interview with The Korea Times at a cafe in Seoul, Wednesday.

"I wanted to feature the class gap in a more delicate and multi-layered manner. So the rich family couple has been depicted as well-mannered, elegant and naive sometimes. But, looking at them closely, the camera picks up their hysteric side as well. The poor family seemed to be ordinary in a way, but they are the ones who deceived people to take away others' jobs. People are not good or bad in their entirety. That way, I thought the characters would earn more reality."

"Body smell" works as a sharp tool to show the class gap, which functions as the seed for all tragedy that happens, Bong says.

"In normal life, the rich and the poor don't share the same living space. On the same plane, there are sections for rich riders and poor riders and they are separate. The only time those of different classes can smell each other is when the poor work for the rich families as tutors, housekeepers and drivers," the director said.

In "Parasite," the four poor scammers succeed in being hired and up close to the rich family. The young rich couple, played by Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong, in their private conversation casually mention the "particular body odor that subway-riders emanate," saying the smell of subway commuters is different from that of rich people who only use fancy expensive cars.

"Talking about one's body odor is taboo even among close friends, because doing so is viewed as very aggressive and rude. By talking about different smells, the film puts the class issue under the microscope. Through smells, the film's tension and suspense mount, which eventually makes a multi-layered foundation for the upcoming tragedy."

Regarding veteran actor Song, who plays the father of the poor family, the director said the actor encouraged him to move forward and try something new. Including "Parasite," Bong worked with the actor in four previous films. During the photo event after Bong won the Palme d'Or, the director knelt down to jokingly present the prize to the actor.

"Song's acting performance has such power that sets the tone of the entire film. Many of my films tell strange, abnormal situations, like a creature appears in the Han River in The Host, and the story end without catching the serial killer in Memories of Murder; the actor's performance make audiences immersed in and believe the story that I tell," he said.

"In my new film, there is this climax of emotional explosion. It is not something that people see in ordinary situations. With Song, I can have more room for my cinematic creativity. When I'm writing a script, imagining Song is in the role, I can become bolder and more confident."

Bong said he is planning to make two films of a similar scale to "Parasite." "While shooting my latest film, I thought that films the size of Parasite and Mother suit me perfect. So I'm planning to make one with a U.S. studio and another with a Korean studio with the similar scale. The latter one is actually the one that I wanted to make since the mid-2000s. It will be a scary story in Seoul, but cannot be categorized simply as a horror or thriller," he said.

"Parasite" will hit local theaters Thursday.

Park Jin-hai


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