Sitting on top of the cinematic world, 49-year-old Bong Joon-ho’s pathway to the coveted Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or for anarchic black comedy Parasite began on the sly.
With his movie now screening at the Sydney Film Festival, the South Korean director is dressed all in black and flourishing a white fan when we meet in a suite at the Parkroyal Darling Harbour.
There’s a cheeky twinkle in his eye as Joon-ho tells me in English – temporarily benching our translator – that during middle school he’d sneak into the living room at midnight once all his family was asleep to watch TV.
His favourite thing to watch? American Forces Korean Network (AFKN), a teeny TV station servicing US soldiers stationed in South Korea since WWII.
“Every Friday and Saturday night, there were many wicked, dirty and strange B-pictures, some Hammer horror movies – Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, Sam Peckinpah, that sort of thing,” Joon-ho recalls.
“I was still quite young, many had sexual content and violence, and I really enjoyed that.”
Those sneaky after-dark sessions infuse the acclaimed work of Joon-ho, the mastermind behind sharp-witted and kooky cult hits like monster movie The Host, dystopian Snowpiercer and Netflix genetically modified pig drama Okja with Tilda Swinton.
“They run through my veins,” Joon-ho says.
“When I went to uni to study film, I watched the European and Asian masters and they’re mixed together with those midnight movies to create a film like Parasite, which is a rotten, strange, dirty movie.”
Joon-ho regular Song Kang-ho stars in Parasite as the dad of an impoverished family squished together in a stinky basement, when his son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) is offered a gig tutoring a rich girl after his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) fakes his uni credentials.
She soon inveigles her way into their plush pad too as an art therapist, with mum and dad following as house keeper and driver. Pretty soon, they don’t want to leave.
Outrageously funny, Parasite makes you root for the wrong people, leaving you doubting your twisted moral compass. In other words, it’s brilliant.
“When I see a villain, I feel like, ‘Oh, there must be something bad happened to him or her before,” Joon-ho says.
“I feel sympathy towards them. When I see a superhero, I think, ‘That bloody guy must have something wrong with him’ so they all end up in a grey zone in my stories.”
Joon-ho admits he owes a great deal of his success to Kang-ho’s deadpan delivery.
“You know, Indiewire recently said that I have become a genre unto myself,” Joon-ho says.
“I love that, and one of the biggest factors that made that possible was Song. His comedy is not exaggerated at all. He’s understands the nuance.
“It sounds very realistic, but the energy that he can explode at the end of the film is like a 100 times bigger than those superheroes in Marvel movies.”
Two years ago, audiences booed the Netflix title card when the Palme d’Or-nominated Okja opened Cannes, sparking a huge row about the streaming service’s presence that led to them pulling their movies the next year.
What a difference two years makes, with Joon-ho now lauded with the top prize thanks to Parasite.
“I think streaming is also a good medium to watch film, but the big screen is best,” he says, laughing.
“It sounds a bit stupid to say that now. I honestly think we need to find an area in which these two mediums can coexist, but that’s not my job.”
His job is making his madly unique movies: “Obviously I appreciate the support of audiences and some critics, and you know getting an award from a film festival is amazing, but I cannot be bound to making films based on that.”
Laughing again, he adds with a grin, “Of course there will be some people who wouldn’t like this kind of film but, honestly, I don’t care about that.”
Parasite screens at the Sydney Film Festival this weekend and then nationally from June 27.