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‘Parasite’: Shooting Bong Joon Ho’s Social Thriller Through the Lens of Class Divide

Bill Desowitz

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[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers.]

Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-contending “Parasite” masterfully explores class divisions in Korea with voyeuristic delight. Watching the poor family leave their cramped semi-basement home to overtake the wealthy family’s exquisite mansion becomes a tragicomic exercise in the futility of aspiration. The director crosses Hitchcock with Buñuel yet provides his own sense of cunning and precision. He populates the frame with doppelgangers while emphasizing vertical spaces, and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo executes his vision with stunning visual contrasts.

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“First, I tried to reflect the gap between the rich and the poor in the amount of sunshine,” said Kyung-pyo. “This was something that director Bong and I had already studied the most with discussions and test shooting. In terms of topography, if you visit the concentrated semi-basement area in the lowland and the rich area in the highland, the difference in the amount of sunlight is obvious. To make Ki-taek’s [Song Kang-ho] semi-basement house and the open set of Park’s [Lee Sun-kyun] mansion more realistic, we collected data by repeatedly testing and checking the sunlight in each location, which are regarded as in the same neighborhood in the film. In the rich mansion, on the high ground, you can see the sunlight all day long through the wide windows everywhere during all the daytime when the sun is up. On the other hand, sunlight comes through a small window in the semi-basement house and can be seen only for a short moment of the day. The sunny area is just as limited as the size of the small window.”

That is why residents of semi-basement units turn on the indoor light during daytime; therefore, the cinematographer installed the same kind of low-end lighting lamps (greenish fluorescent and tungsten incandescent) used by Korean households in Ki-taek’s home. “A little more extreme setting here is the secret underground space of the rich house,” continued Kyung-pyo. “In this space, we applied the same lamps which are used in Ki-taek’s house, but added some variations in their arrangement and contrast.

“However, Park’s house, having received generous sunlight during the day, goes on to enjoy the luxury of elegant artificial lights when the sun goes down. We appropriately placed expensive indoor lighting and LED lighting that were actually installed in such mansions. We focused on depicting the softness and the sophistication exclusive to rich households by using warm-colored lights, gentle indirect lighting, and applying dimmer switched (unlike greenish fluorescent light). In the end, semi-basement lighting was ‘technical lighting’ while the lighting in Park’s house was ‘aesthetic lighting.’”

Meanwhile, Kyung-pyo said that changes in lighting detail — shifts from space to space — such as when members of Ki-taek’s family escape from Park’s house and run back to their place during the rain storm, were gradually expressed. As they run in the rain and the space shifts, you can view the wealthy neighborhood’s LED street lights changing to the poor neighborhood’s red lamps.

In terms of shooting vertical compositions to convey the class divide between the two families, Kyung-pyo explained that characters have different eye levels depending on the places they are in, and because of that, their perspectives are limited. “For instance, at the level of Ki-taek’s family living in a semi-basement, they see cement street floors and various garbage, street cats, and the wheels of vehicles passing through their neighborhood.” he said. “The eye level of this neighborhood means watching the densely-built houses of strangers, their lives, and even some of their private lives. A drunk man urinating on the streets is one of the things they inevitably have to watch.

“In the beginning of the film, Ki-woo [Choi Woo-shik, who plays the son] climbs a hillside in the rich neighborhood for a tutor interview. The hillsides are full of citadel-like mansions, which Ki-woo would never know what happens inside. There are no passers-by or even a street cat. The riches’ privacy is keenly secured. Once Ki-woo reaches Park’s house, he comes to face the ‘open sky’ and the ‘nicely kept green grass in the garden’. The sky could never be seen in the semi-basement and the grass was mere weed struggling to survive between the rocks in Ki-woo’s neighborhood. Now he sees them function as ‘pieces of landscape’ in the rich house.”

However, in most of the shifts between different spaces, there were scenes with stairs. Stairs provide important transitions between the two extremes of spaces and relationships. To express this effectively, Kyung-pyo studied Bong’s very descriptive script and detailed storyboards. “Walking up some stairs, you become infinitely elegant, while walking down another, you fall endlessly or enter into an ominous mood,” he said. “Stairs also function as a tool that makes one realize their true identity after basking in the momentary ‘highness.’ They walk up with excitement, but run down endlessly in the pouring rain. What they see at the end of the stairs is their house drowned in water.”

Rain, too, functioned as an important visual device, with its impact on rich and poor conveyed very differently. Because Park’s house on the highland is securely built, there is no threat of flooding. “Accordingly, for the rain scene in Park’s house, we set the lighting specifically so that the rain wouldn’t be very visible and proceed to film the scene that way. The rain in this house, therefore, is so delicate that it’s almost romantic.

“On the other hand, Ki-taek’s family realizes that the downpour is stronger than expected as they escape the rich house through the garage. In the rain, they come down the hill that Ki-woo climbed up during the first part of the movie. It is at this shot that Ki-taek’s family realizes that rain isn’t so romantic after all. In the following stairs sequence, the focus of the shooting was to make the rainfall look even stronger. We set the lighting so that water flowing from piers and rooftops as well as the water from the rain cluster would be emphasized. Various photography and lighting equipment were used to capture the despair of the characters in the scene. Ki-taek’s semi-basement house that they reach in the end was set to look like the rain was threatening their entire lives, and we shot the scenes accordingly. In this scene, the rain became another antagonist on its own.”

But figuring out how to shoot the flooding of Ki-taek’s semi-basement unit proved daunting. Every item’s characteristic had to be analyzed. Does it float or not? “We also ran simulations through several discussions before deciding on the spots where special effects would be added,” Kyung-pyo said. “Various attempts such as appropriately placing [lights] and flashing them were made to amplify the characters’ sense of crisis in the blackout following the flooding.”

For the climactic midday murder spree during the backyard birthday celebration, they arranged for filming to be held at noon to best take advantage of the beautiful backdrop. “The reason we chose to film in the natural sunlight in spite of [cloud-covered] limitations was because we wanted to double the sense of reality in flow of the events as well as the characters’ emotions and to perfect the sequence,” the cinematographer said. “The birthday party sequence is comprised of various characters’ movements [with Ki-taek’s emotions reaching their extreme as he goes over the edge].

“In order to emphasize the reality into these complicated structures, I tried to keep the consistency of rhythm of the camera and light. I captured the explosive acting of those actors based on the concrete storyboard with efficient camera walk and it was enough to make a sort of rhythm. Also, the last over head angle crane shot concludes this chaotic sequence by infusing a bleak sentiment. The birthday party sequence was completed by the chemical activity of the enthusiastic performance of the actors, patience of the whole staff, and technology for four days of shooting.”

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