READING BETWEEN THE LINES – THE LOOK OF BONG JOON-HO’S PARASITE
There are infinite ways to frame and compose a shot.
The Filmmakers that we have come to know and love force us to look at our world differently. Their wizardry combining art and science, of architecturally building a shot with lines and shapes, of forced perspective to have a powerful, psychological impact on their audience is the reason we love film, the reason we queue outside cinemas, the reason you are watching this video right now.
Perfecting this art of composition is the lifelong drive of every Director and DP. In the same way it has been the symbolic holy grail of artists, photographers, and architects to name a few for as far back as humans have been on this planet.
Humans collectively give abstract meaning to different shapes, lines and patterns. Vertical and horizontal lines for example can indicate a character is trapped or a prisoner in their current lifestyle. Triangles can emphasize power dynamics, linear framing can show physical separation and straight lines are used to guide your eyesight.
Each frame of a film is a blank canvas for a director and cinematographer. It offers them a new opportunity to create a dynamic composition, which if memorable, will stick with us forever, no matter where we are in the world or what languages we speak.
Today, we’re taking a look at the cinematography of a story about a poor family’s plan to con their way into becoming the servants of a rich family. with twists throughout turning it into a spectacular crime thriller. This is the look… of PARASITE.
One recurring reference from the outset is the theme of PLANS. Our main character, the patriarch of the poor family refuses to make plans so as not to be disappointed when things go wrong.
While this is key to the story, to the person telling it- the architect and artist Bong Joon Ho, every detail and every frame would need to be meticulously crafted alongside cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo to make a story and set that were, quite literally, watertight.
In Parasite, every single shot drives home visually the vital themes of wealth, disparity and the myth of class mobility with every set constructed to be a maze, a puzzle box and a prison that manipulates us from start to finish and leaves us breathless by the end.
“BONG: For the rich house, the strange events that occur are very much tied to the actual space of that house. So, the basic structure of the house was set as I wrote the script because otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible to propel the narrative forward. So, while I was writing the script, I sketched out the house and handed it to the production designer, Lee Ha-Jun.”
Almost as important as the actors, were the film’s settings — Two polar opposite homes where virtually all the action takes place.
Lee designed each home with parallel front-facing windows and this is important because we can see the gulf between the two families from the very first shot of them. The poor Kim family have a morsel of window to let in light. By stark contrast – the Rich have a window shaped in classic widescreen aspect ratio – 2.39:1).
This article covers the architecture of the houses in Parasite perfectly.
BONG: “That giant glass window basically was built in this CinemaScope ratio. We designed it like that on purpose, so that when people are sitting in the sofa and drinking whiskey, it almost feels like they’re watching a film screen. And for the poor house, the window is longer and it also gives a sense that this family has no privacy, that anyone outside can look in and sort of infiltrate their home. Essentially, they’re looking through the same window, but they’re seeing completely different things.”
Bong shoots the two windows the same way he would shoot two characters in conversation. Kim’s window from the right side always and the Park’s always from the left. The houses face each other from left to right, but what is potently clear is the vertical relationship they share.
BONG: “The characters in the poor house have no privacy. They’re completely exposed to the street — sometimes fumigation gas or floodwater might flow in; and there’s a drunk guy who regularly urinates right outside their window. The wealthy family’s central window, on the other hand, looks out onto a beautiful garden. When it rains, instead of worrying about floodwater, they look out and appreciate the mood and the view.”
Visually, Parasite starts from the bottom and works its way up. The poor live underground and rich live above-ground with the line of separation between the classes being the ground itself. Kim Ki-taek and his family live underground, a position they are forced into due to their low-income status – when portraying poverty, it’s about as on-the-nose as you can get!
- The house is dirty,
- The drunk and inebriated urinate by their window
- The family is forced to live an uncivilised existence with very little natural light
- Their lack of work has them folding pizza boxes for a living (which take up more space in the Kim’s already cramped home – look at how much of the shot they usurp!)
All of these elements are exacerbated by the use of the camera (and audience) – looking down on the Kim family is something that Bong and Hong employ throughout the opening of the film and that only changes when the son of the Kim family becomes the tutor to the richer Park family where our perspective flips and we look up at him.
Privacy also played a key thematic role. The first 10 seconds attest to the fact that the poor house doesn’t have any privacy. All of the pedestrians and cars passing by can see inside the poor family’s semi-basement home (and the toilet!). Even the camera infiltrates this poor family’s space at the beginning of the film descending on the claustrophobic home of the Kim family from the streets above.
Bong: “For the rich family’s house [the main location in Parasite], we basically built the first floor of the building on a vacant lot. We created the trees, the grass and the yard. The second floor and basement were set in a different studio.”
Lee: “Mr. Park’s house is minimal, uncluttered, large and orderly. It’s a large house with a large garden consisting of controlled colors and materials—a contrast to the semi-basement neighborhood.”
There are key moments of juxtaposition that really hammer home this class divide. For example, when torrential rainfall doesn’t affect the rich Park families’ fun when camping in the backyard, yet it floods the Kim home leaving the toilet bubbling over with sewage and the drenched family wading through it. About as opposite ends of the spectrum as we can get! However, Bong still navigates the thin line of presenting neither side as hero or villain – while the rich house may come across as being luxurious, it also feels like an isolated castle. It is this ambiguity which leaves us questioning just who is the titular Parasite…
BONG: “I wanted this film to seem a little more realistic. I was tired of seeing rich people who were always bad and greedy and poor people who were always nice and helping each other. I was tired of that dichotomy. I think reality is always vague and ambiguous, and good vs. evil—there’s a very fine line of how those two can be separated.”
We are reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” or to use it’s Japanese title – “Heaven and Hell.” On the top of the hill is a rich guy and in the bottom, there is the criminal. It’s basically the same in “Parasite,” but with a lot more layers and is masterfully dissected in the below video:
“Parasite” is a film that follows 10 main characters up close (8 of whom are shown below – the other two are not shown for obvious reasons which will become apparent after you have witnessed the movie) with 10 different “characteristics” that need to be captured in the frame – the looks, the personality, the deep pathos that oozes from each character’s situation and by giving us the opportunity to see the whole picture – characters listening in to others’ private conversations, 14 shots of characters listening in to other characters throughout the film. That’s a lot!
So to capture these, at times, overcrowded scenes in intimate, claustrophobic settings Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo opted for the Large Format Alexa 65. Large-format cameras have a significant impact on a filmmaker’s use of lenses. For example, using a 50mm lens on a 65mm format camera like this produces a field of view roughly the equivalent of a wide 25mm lens on 35mm format, while maintaining the characteristics and optics of the tighter 50mm lens — specifically a shallower depth of field and more compressed rendering of space.
In other words, the large format allows you to see wider, without going wider.
With this camera and lensing you get a sense of the environment, but they have also isolated him in that environment with this shallower depth of field.
Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo explains how the lighting itself helped convey the class divide at the heart of “Parasite”—from the amount of sunlight available in any given scene, to the types of indoor lighting that would realistically be used in a Korean semi-basement apartment.
“First, I tried to reflect the gap between the rich and the poor in the amount of sunshine. This was something that director Bong and I had already studied the most with discussions and test shooting. 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.”
So the cinematographer installed the same low-end lighting lamps (greenish fluorescent and tungsten incandescent) used by Korean households in Ki-taek’s home.
The street lamps outside were given a dim, reddish color that he says created a very dull, deadening feeling.
Shooting at the Park home, on the other hand, was done in natural light and only warm-toned lighting was used in the interiors.
Hong Kyung-pyo: “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.”
Hong went on to explain that the Park 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 switches (unlike greenish fluorescent light). In the end, semi-basement lighting was ‘technical lighting’ while the lighting in Park’s house was ‘aesthetic lighting.’
As the Kim family scurry from the Park house back to their lowly home in the rain we can see the wealthy neighborhood’s LED street lights changing to the poor neighborhood’s red lamps.
As the Kim family assume roles as the Park family’s employees their placement in the house notifies the audience of their changing status and the power shift occurring between the families.
For example, in Ki-woo’s first tutoring session with Park Da-hye (the teenage daughter of the Park family) he is situated on the first floor, but, once Da-hye’s mother is comfortable around him, he is promoted to teach in her bedroom, located on the second floor. Thus, the first member of the Kim family has moved from the semi-basement, up through the streets, up the countless staircases into the highest house in the city and now to the highest part of the house.
Or Ki-jung, when hired as an art therapist for the youngest Park takes charge of the situation and instructs the boy’s mother to “wait downstairs”. The Parks therefore have been demoted to the lower half of the house. If this were the Kim’s proverbial puppet show then they are above the Park family, looking down, operating the strings of the family that they are infiltrating.
Similarly, when half-way through the film, the narrative flips as the plans of the Kim family are dealt a significant blow (SPOILER FREE) – the carefully crafted world that surrounds them reflects that. The physical descent reflects the fall from grace of the characters and so do the camera angles used. Now from a distant, wide lens, our characters are shown to be tiny in amongst the gargantuan buildings, staircases and streets. As they scurry back to their semi-subterranean home, they look like little insects winding their way back down the varying staircases to their hellish homelife.
Staircases are predominant throughout the movie. Both Mr. Park’s mansion-like house and Kitaek’s semi-basement house feature several staircases of varying sizes within the home. Could these perhaps be Bong’s nod to Hitchcock (show suspenseful staircase examples from Hitchcock)? ASIDE: *He acknowledges him just prior to the montage at the end of act one (with Hitchcock book on the bookshelf or film on shelf) and when interviewed (Vanity Fair) said he rewatched ‘Psycho’ because the Bates house, not the motel, the house, had a very interesting structure.
BONG: “while not as rich, Norman Bates’ house is also a two-story home with a staircase that leads to secrets lurking underneath.”
Bong told press after the release of the film that he was most inspired by Alfred Hitchcock movies and Korean director Kim Ki-young’s 1960 crime drama “The Housemaid.”
The Housemaid is, to quote CRITERION, “A twisted little tale, about a bourgeois family whose lives are thrown into dangerous disarray by the arrival of a live-in domestic, throws viewers for a loop with its feverish intensity and over-the-top plot turns.”
This cultural commentary through an hugely engaging twist-centric storyline, morally-ambiguous characters and classic camera movement is Bong Joon-Ho’s homage to what made him a filmmaker… and guess what? That harking back to the classic storytelling is what made it so popular at the awards ceremonies.
Bong: It’s important that the characters are moving down, but what’s more important is that water is moving with them: Water is flowing from top to bottom, to the rich neighborhoods to the poor ones, and these characters they have no control over it. The water that flows down with them ultimately floods their entire home. I think that’s the really sad element of that sequence.
Linking to this theme of water, not only do we encounter the beautiful pathetic fallacy of the rain heralding the Kim family’s fall from grace, but here’s Bong’s analogy for the pacing of the film:
“It was kind of like when you have water draining in the sink. At first, it’s very quiet and you barely notice the waterline descending; but near the end, you start to hear a gurgling as everything rushes down the drain.”
We’ve already examined how height and light have helped to convey the social standing of these families, but now let’s look deeper at certain scenes and see how Bong Joon-ho and Hong Kyung-pyo use blocking of characters, composition of shots with geometric patterns, lines and shapes to advance the themes of the story, reveal character and create emotion.
The original working title of Parasite was Decalcomania.
This is a technique in which an image is created on paper and then folded over to form a doubled, almost symmetrical work of art that . Why is this relevant? Because symmetry is a common motif in Bong’s movies – probably on a par with Kubrick for his love of one-point-perspective (see above gif) and this story about a poor family infiltrating and impressing themselves upon the rich family could not ask for more of this Bong set-piece.
BUT WAIT… there isn’t anything symmetrical in this whole movie. Sure, there are scenes that are meant to look close to being symmetrical, there are even scenes with reflections that are to the left or right of screen, but not symmetrical and we think that might be deliberate (like with the famous “ghost scene” – the shelves on either side of the doorway have been made to have elements of similar, but with different plates and tablewear. Perhaps Bong Joon-Ho is showing that these two families can never be the same, feel the same things, exist in the same microcosm – there will always be the smell that lingers – something to prevent the Kim’s from being part of the Park’s world. Perhaps he is showing that like with the Decalcomania, the picture is never truly symmetrical and life is no perfect fairytale.
Bong’s storyboarding gives us a clear indication for how he saw camera moves, almost voyeuristic with the slight movement of the camera just to nudge your attention from where you think it should be to something else. For example in this scene when the Kim family are trying to get Wifi by climbing to the highest point in their home the toilet! Here is the storyboard drawn by Bong Joon-Ho:
Jimno Yang (EDITOR): “There were many of these kinds of camera movements which made fewer cuts, compared to other feature films. It only has 960 cuts in total. The reason why “Parasite” is so immersive and rhythmical is because of the harmony of accurate camera work and timing of the editing, which started from the exquisite storyboard.”
The claustrophobic nature by which Bong films the poor family is another example of his inspired framing to assist with storytelling. When the Kim family crowd their boss from the pizza company – their bodies are nearly spilling out of the frame. This image shows the family’s closeness prepares us for when they come together to take on the somewhat segmented Park family. Furthermore, this composition contrasts perfectly with the framing of the Park family who don’t often are either not in the same shot, the same room or are spread out across the “CinemaScope ratio” screen.
Again, the Houses themselves come into play with regard to blocking and composition. In the Kim house the characters are boxed in by shapes and lines, usually crouched into frame under an overhang or with clutter on either side of them. Even the son’s walk from the poor Kim house to the rich Park house begins with him squeezing out of the claustrophobic alleyway (again with its imposing concrete overhang) and then into the light, natural open spaces of the richer world (with trees being the only thing overhanging).
With specific blocking elements in mind while writing the script, Bong could chart the actors’ path through the living room and garden, the path down the staircase to the dining table, a position that lets the actor discreetly look over the kitchen from the second floor staircase, path from the kitchen down to the basement, path from the basement down to the secret bunker, to the path from the garage up to the living room, and so on.
Given that it was originally written to be a play on stage, this detailed mapping, almost constant movement is somewhat ballet-like.
Bong: The story just demanded all those things in terms of blocking, like if someone is in a certain position, the other character had to spy on them; if someone’s coming in, another person had to hide behind a corner. So these very basic spatial relationships between the characters were already established.
With composition like this and knowing the outcome of the film, the movie pays off just as much on repeat viewings. For example, (without spoilers) knowing that there is a class divide between the Kim family and the richer Park family, here’s the scene where Ki-Woo (son of the Kim family) meets Yeong-Kyo (matriarch of the Park family) with a beautiful line between the poor help and the rich homeowner – notice that the second the housemaid “crosses the line” she immediately reverts to position before she is seen to have crossed it:
In every scene Bong frames the pair with a line dividing them… This same line will appear when Ki-taek meets his boss Park Dong-ik at his tech company too. The world of Parasite is a character in itself and the composition and set design are akin to Kubrick’s The Shining in their masterful complexity. Look at the use of cell phones to give that layers of complexity within the shot, further compounding the prison-like existence of the Kim family… Much like their window letting in very little light, their home receives very little reception and wifi. The poor becomes prisoners to modernity (and the shape of those bars, while a push to suggest the two are linked, could not have a clearer parallel.
The maze of physical spaces also provide us with scope for symbolism with key visual elements carrying more weight on future viewings. Staircases, hallways, shelves, coffee tables, plants, doors all provide visual clues that help us to work out the intricacies of the plot. With shots that contain so many layers, like this one… The woman in the foreground is listening to the conversations going on in the distance and is waiting on the stairs for her perfect opportunity to leave through the door at the back having picked up valuable intel). As an audience we have so much going on in one shot and with it we know all of the story (just like we are Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window! Show that film) and the dramatic irony is palpable.
In this shot, Ki-Woo’s mother sits out of focus in the foreground to the right of shot, her son lays in the middle of the garden reading a book in the distance, laying in the sunshine surrounded by greenery. Knowing what we do now, having witnessed the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the Kim house it’s a lot more poignant having the matriarch of the Kim family sitting in an expansive sitting room experiencing a life she has never known, looking at a plentiful garden through a full sized window.
As Filmmakers, we are constantly reminded that conventions are made to be changed, records there to be broken and lines to be crossed. Whether it was the water that blurred those lines, Bong Jung-Ho with his characters or Hong Kyung-Pyo with his cinematography, for Parasite and the world of cinema the lines are disappearing.