Fresh from Oscar wins, 'Parasite' director Bong Joon-ho is still pondering what they mean

"Parasite" director Bong Joon-ho
Bong Joon-ho, winner of the original screenplay, international feature film, directing and best picture award for "Parasite," poses in the press room during the Academy Awards Sunday.
Rachel Luna | Getty Images

It was about 90 minutes into Bong Joon-ho’s appearance at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis before he realized that it had only been three days, not four, since the Oscar ceremony. “It feels like three years ago,” he then said.

Bong’s visit to the Walker as part of the art center’s retrospective and dialogue series was arranged some time ago, but the Oscar wins suddenly made his discussion with former Variety film critic Scott Foundas the hottest ticket in town.

The packed house gave Bong a standing ovation as he walked onstage. “Parasite’” taking the best picture Oscar was seen as a huge surprise by many observers and some sort of game changer after what had been to that point a fairly predictable awards ceremony.

Best Picture Award winners for "Parasite"
Director Bong Joon-ho, center, producer Kwak Sin-ae and the cast of "Parasite" pose onstage at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre Sunday. The film won best picture.
Matt Petit | A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

Yet when asked what the Oscar wins mean Bong said he doesn’t know yet.

“To be honest I am still thinking about it. I don’t know how this happened. It’s definitely a great thing. I just need more time to think about it.”

“Parasite” is a darkly comic satire about a poor Korean family whose members gradually worm their way into the hearts and assets of a wealthy family who live in a huge house. The film’s unexpected twists and turns won over both critics and audiences. It was the first movie entirely in non-English to win best picture.

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Bong, 40, has been on the forefront of Korean filmmaking for almost two decades, and has had several international hits, including “The Host” about a man’s battle with a monster that appears in the Han River in Seoul, “Snowpiercer” a dystopian tale of a high-speed train endlessly circling a climate change-ravaged Earth, and “Okja” an early Netflix commission about a young girl’s mission to rescue her best friend, a huge animal kidnapped by a multinational corporation.

During his discussion with Foundas, the director talked about growing up in what he called “a unique household where we didn’t do sports or go on vacation, we just sat watching TV.”

However they were watching films and TV from the United States, which had been so heavily censored by the military regime in power when he was a boy that the stories didn’t make sense sometimes. It was only years later that he saw uncut versions and understood what he was missing.

Still, watching all that time gave him an understanding of film and he says the influences of those Hollywood movies still flow through his blood.

Bong was hooked. He joined the cinema club when he went to college, and eventually when he was 22 began making movies using Super 8 cameras and some video equipment.

He told the audience his first feature film was amateurish, and that he was glad it wasn’t in the Walker retrospective. “Please don’t watch it,” he said before moving on.

He based his second feature on a real-life story of a Korean serial killer. “Memories of a Murder” was well-received in South Korea and received some international distribution. It was also the first film he made with Song Kang-ho, who has now appeared in four of Bong’s seven features, including playing the father of the poor family in “Parasite.” Neon, the company that distributed “Parasite,” now plans to rerelease “Memories” in the United States following Bong’s recent success.

In a wide-ranging discussion that lasted two hours Bong revealed several interesting tidbits, including that the designers working on the monster in “The Host” based its face on the actor Steve Buscemi. Bong said he recently met the actor at a dinner, but didn’t have time to tell him of the connection.

He also admitted that while he originally had the idea for “Parasite” in 2013, and began working on developing a script, he only knew the first half of the story. The second half came to him in the final four months of actual writing. He detailed some of the twists he came up with in those final weeks, before being told there was a chance some people in the audience hadn’t yet seen “Parasite.”

“Sorry, I spoiled my own movie!” he said.

A still from movie "Parasite."
Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong play a wealthy couple whose hired help aren't quite what they seem in "Parasite."
Courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment

When asked about the family themes in several of his films, he said he finds the parent-child relationship very powerful. “The Host” is about a father trying to rescue his daughter from the monster, “Mother” is about a malevolent woman who’s trying to save her adult son, but he’s not so sure, and “Parasite” is about families trying to survive. When Foundas joked that he makes family movies, he agreed and then added “All family stories, but not stories you can get financing from Disney.”

Bong took several questions from the audience, including one from a member of the local Korean community who told the director how important the win was for them. He then asked how it actually felt to win on Sunday night.

The director said when Spike Lee called his name “it was a surreal feeling. I looked out into the crowd and I locked eyes with Martin Scorsese. It was quite strange because I didn’t know his position (until then.)”

Seeing his long-time hero in the crowd reminded him of studying Scorsese’s books on filmmaking.

“I still don’t know why I talked about the Texas chainsaw. It’s really strange.”

Bong’s appearance was the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Walker’s Dialogue and Retrospective series where screenings of films by significant directors, actors and other filmmakers culminate with an evening of discussion with the featured individual. The series has included Clint Eastwood, Mike Leigh, Isabella Rossellini, and the Coen brothers among many others. The Walker announced that it is preparing to make past dialogues available online within a few months.