This article contains spoilers.
Parasite writer-director Bong Joon-ho thinks about the trajectory of his protagonist—the patriarch of the Kim family, Ki-taek—like a volcano. Midway through the class thriller, Ki-taek finagles a job as a driver for the ultra-rich Mr. Park. He hears Mr. Park comment on his unsavory smell, and “he begins to feel more and more pressure until the very end,” Director Bong says. “The last 30% of the film is basically just the magma continually boiling and gurgling until it reaches that explosive moment.”
That explosive moment, of course, comes at a Cowboys and Indians-themed birthday party for Mr. Park’s young son. And though the volcano metaphor is a bit cliche, the culminating scene is anything but. In the bright afternoon sunlight, the tranquil garden party descends into chaos when the man who’s been living in the Parks’ basement runs into the daylight, seeking vengeance on the place-stealing Kim family. Things get violent and bloody, and even the beautiful cake is stained. It’s a turning point in the story—the moment everything spirals out of control, and also the moment the fighting that’s taken place behind the scenes throughout the film affects the haves in addition to the have-nots.
And yet, it all happens in a flash—so quickly that the scene is hard to process. The violence is absurd, funny even, until it’s tragic, and then when Ki-taek explodes and stabs Mr. Park, it’s almost cathartic. Almost.
If it took some time to parse everything that happened in that climactic blur, that was by design. Director Bong wanted to razzle you, leave you reeling a little bit, mentally chewing on the scene days after seeing the movie. But he’s no monster. Now that the film’s been in theaters for a pinch, Director Bong is here (through a translator) to unpack the scene, including how it was influenced by Hitchcock, why the character who dies does so, and the importance of the birthday party’s theme.
GQ: Can you take me through writing the climactic birthday party scene?
Bong Joon-ho: Sometimes when I'm writing a script, I would write the last scene first, and then write everything that comes before. So everything reaches the last moment. But for Parasite, that wasn't the case. I had the idea for the first half for a couple of years. The second half of the movie really came to me the last two, three months of screenwriting, and with the climax I basically wrote it as if I was possessed. It happened very fast, and I felt like I was experiencing the story as I was writing it.
Ever since the couple in the basement enters the picture, the film becomes a fight between the have nots in the film—it's the poor families that are fighting one another. And this is something that happens all outside of this artificial line that Mr. Park, the CEO, creates for himself. In this film, you don't really see the poor and the rich fighting against each other. But in the climax, that's the only moment when that line is crossed. That was my compass as I was writing the climax.
Once the script is around 70% completed, then it almost feels very simple and clear what must happen. If I follow each path that every character has taken and if I combine all those characters, the climax feels almost inevitable rather than coincidental.
Why did it feel inevitable that Ki-jung, the daughter, would be the one who dies?
All these characters come under incredible, horrific violence at the end—the daughter and the son and everyone in the family. On the screen, it almost feels like it would be the son who would die and not the daughter. But of course, at the end, it's the daughter that dies. I think that's why it feels so tragic. I really wanted to bring out that sort of irony. The daughter is the smartest person in that family, and she's also the person who created the opportunity to avoid the tragedy at the end. She was suggesting that they went too overboard yesterday and they should go down and talk to the couple in the basement. So she was trying to bring about this negotiation among the have nots in the film. And of course, the mother character supported her decision. They barely miss their chance to go down to the basement. The person who tried to create the opportunity to avoid the tragedy: she's the one who died. That's the sad irony of the climax.
The birthday party's theme is Cowboys and Indians. How'd you choose that theme?
In the film, that little boy is a huge fan of Native American culture. And you hear the mom talk about how she purchased things on American sites. And so basically, she purchased all these Native American goods from Amazon, and it's kind of like how a lot of people wear those [Native American] T-shirts—it's like a piece of fashion. And the actual history of Native Americans is very complicated, but the mother and the boy don't care about the complexity at all. It's just a decoration for them.
Expanding from that context, in the climax, when the volcano erupts and that explosive moment happens, just before that, Mr. Park and Ki-taek were both wearing the Native American headdresses. And Ki-taek throws his headdress away to stab Mr. Park, and it's sort of symbolizing his intent to get out of this role-playing that he's doing. Mr. Park tells him that this is like an extension of his work, and you're getting paid to be at this birthday party as he's removing his headdress and progressing towards that violent moment.
When you talk about the unawareness of the context of what they're wearing, it makes me think of Melania Trump wearing that “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” jacket after visiting Texas immigrant detention centers. Were there any real life or movie influences for that end scene?
[Laughs.] The Melania incident happened after I wrote the script. Maybe it was a big prediction. But it's not just Melania Trump. I think a lot of people have that tendency in our times. People don't really care about the true meaning or context behind things. They just focus on the fanciness we see on the surface.
When we were shooting the climax, the DP and I talked about shooting on the brightest day of the year, when there's a lot of sunlight while all that violence is happening. And all that violence was influenced by Hitchcock. Hitchcock said in a famous interview that a murder that happens in bright daylight rather than a dark and rainy back alleyway is more fascinating and intense.
What was the shoot like?
We shot that on a very clear day, in early September. And we shot it at the garden of the rich house, with dozens of extras on set. And at the time, for the actors, it was sort of the peak where they were the most identical with their characters. So even if I didn't give them specific direction, they automatically just moved like their characters. So surprisingly, we actually shot that sequence pretty fast.
That scene manages to be both a bit ridiculous and funny, but also very intense. How did you thread that needle?
I'm grateful for that question because that's what I wanted to achieve with that scene. That man in the basement comes out with the knife in his hands, but even before then he basically cracked his head with the scholar stone, so the violence had already begun. But when the man first comes out into the sunlight, at first he sort of hesitates and almost is shy. Even in my storyboard, I added a note that he should seem like this introverted killer. So it's an absurd moment that's also pretty funny too.
The next thing that happens is he runs with the knife, stabs the daughter, and the violence explodes from that moment on. Everything happens at a very fast speed, almost too fast for the audience to recognize what's going on. It's like a whirlwind. And then, the next moment is the meeting between Mr. Park and the man in the basement. It finally happens and it's a pretty absurd moment. He gets stabbed with a sausage skewer on his side, and even amidst all that pain, he shouts "Respect, Mr. Park," so that's very funny but also sad. And then, because of the smell of this man, Mr. Park holds his nose, and I remember telling the actors to look at the man like he’s this stinky bag of food trash, and that's very cruel. And Mr. Park's reaction has to be that intense for it to act as a trigger for Ki-taek.
Was there anything that happened on set that was different than what you initially imagined?
The overhead shot of the closeup on the bread and the blood splattering wasn't in my storyboard. But it's a shot that's included in all the trailers, and it's become a very iconic shot for this movie. Basically, you have this garden party for a bunch of rich people and there's a ton of French bread everywhere, and you have a person's blood just being splattered on top of it. So I think this moment really encompasses that scene, and also the entire movie. I wanted something that doesn't feature any actors or characters but can still capture the film. This shot becomes this very sharp shot that slices people.
Have you paid attention to audiences' responses to that scene? And if so, has it been what you intended?
In our actual lives, when we witness a traffic accident or something violent happening all of a sudden, we have no room to process what's going on. We don't know what to think and we kind of become blank. We come home and get in our beds, and then it's the next day when we start thinking about what's happened. And that's what I wanted the audience to feel with the climax. And I think it's been pretty similar. No one really knows what's going on, and they can't really process anything.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
“I think we all have a very sensitive antennae to class, in general.”
Originally Appeared on GQ