Why 'Parasite' Director Bong Joon Ho Built an Entire Neighborhood to Shoot His Thriller


This post contains a few spoilers for Parasite (which are clearly marked). 

Amongst all the other movies hitting the theaters this fall, Bong Joon Ho's Parasite is a different beast. The South Korean writer-director -- whose credits include 2017's wonderful giant pig movie, and Netflix's best original, Okja; post-apocalyptic bullet train adventure Snowpiercer; and gory monster flick The Host -- has made waves in the States with his genre movies about monsters and bio-engineered meat and frozen worlds. With Parasite, he returns to a form he's already well-versed in: plain-old drama. 

Except, there's nothing plain about Parasite. The movie mutates from one thing into another almost instantaneously thanks to a mid-film twist that throws the carefully built perspective of a poor family worming their way into a rich one's completely out of order. When director Bong and I sat down for an interview, he told me he has a few theories about where the idea for the movie originally sprung from. It's been a while since he first came up with the story, he said, but he remembers talking about it with his wife and the producer of the film he was working on in 2013. "That was the time I was working on the post-production of Snowpiercer," he said, "which is also about class warfare. So I was already very much enveloped in that idea. But, I think, instead of telling that story in a sci-fi format, I wanted to tell it with just my neighbors that I see on a daily basis around me." 

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He has other theories about where the idea came from: One is that a lot of actors had been asking him to write a play, and since "the stage is a limited space, I was trying to come up with a story that I can tell with just two homes: one poor and one rich." He also described himself as "very fascinated with the sense of 'infiltration.' When I was in college I also worked as a tutor for a very rich family, and I got this sense that I was inevitably spying on the private lives of complete strangers -- when [the son] Ki-woo first enters the the rich home [in Parasite], that's something that I experienced as well." 

In Parasite, to dig his family out of their tiny, poor, sub-basement apartment life, young Ki-woo (Choi Woo sik) has his sister forge a college degree and takes a job as an English tutor for the rich Park family's daughter on his friend's recommendation. When the wealthy wife shows off her young son's "art," saying she wants to develop his talents, Ki-woo snatches the opportunity, and recommends a colleague named Jessica who, unbeknownst to his employer, is his sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park). Gradually, the pair get their parents, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho) and Choong-sook (Jang Hye-jin), in the mix as well, carefully concocting a scheme to replace the help in the Park household with their own family members. 

"We built all the houses -- the rich house, the poor house, and the neighborhood surrounding the poor house," Bong said. "Particularly for the rich house, because around 60 percent of the film happens there, we put in a lot of care into the details of the design."

Mrs. Park (Jo Yeo-jeong) in the household's palatial kitchen. | Neon

The Kims' sub-basement apartment, as well as the facades of about 16 or 17 other small complexes, were built in a tank that they could fill up with water for one disastrous scene. The star, though, is the Park house, a palatial ultra-modern estate the family says was built years before they moved into it by a famous architect, who also called the house his home. 

"The house also had to reflect the taste of this young couple. It couldn't just be covered in gold and tacky, like what Trump would want," Bong said with a laugh. "They want to show off that they're rich, but they're also very sophisticated, they have high-class taste with this house." 

Because the direction in the script Bong had written was so specific, he had many requests for the production designer to fulfill: "I had very specific ideas of the character blocking and the spatial relationships among the characters. For example, a character had to be able to crawl from the living room to reach the garage, and if someone is talking at the kitchen dining table someone had to be able to eavesdrop behind on the stairs. So, I already had very specific requirements in terms of the space and how these characters would move about in the house. I gave these requirements to the production designer, who had this job of satisfying my requirements while at the same time making sure that the house looked sophisticated and beautiful, and also just had to make sense architecturally." 

The pajamas are to die for. | Neon

To illustrate the gulf between the Parks and the Kims, Bong gave the Park family a very Western aesthetic -- after hiring Ki-woo, Mrs. Park immediately gives him the nickname "Kevin." The Parks also wear lots of muted, monotone clothing, and they each have gorgeous matching pajama sets -- the kind that make you immediately google how much J. Crew jammies cost as soon as you leave the theater. "Something that I talked about with the costume designer is, in Korean culture, average people don't really wear pajamas. We just wear, like, loungewear throughout the day and just sleep in them. So that in itself, the fact that they're wearing pajamas and changing into pajamas, just shows that they're rich. We actually tested the color and fabric of the pajamas." 

As for the title of the movie, Bong explained that it could refer to anyone. "You can call the protagonist family the 'parasites' as they're the ones infiltrating the rich house," he said. "But then" -- this is a spoiler -- "they come to discover that there were already parasites in that home. You can call them the 'native parasites.' And if you flip it around, you can say that the rich family are also parasites because they have to hire drivers, housekeepers to do everything for them. They never do anything themselves and they leech off of the labor that the poor family provides." A multilayered title for a multilayered film that gradually peels back its skin to show the dark and fearsome terrors nestled underneath. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.