A “dark horror black comedy social satire action flick” is how Bong Joon-Ho labeled his film Parasite a few days before it won the Palme d’Or in May 2019. The stern unwillingness of this award-winning favorite to be reduced to one genre leads to an easy conclusion: the films of director Bong are a genre on their own. It is the signature filmmaking he has been crafting meticulously since his first feature Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000). Along the way, he joined forces with faithful collaborators. Song Kang-ho, the grinning face of Korean cinema, has been Bong’s muse since Memories of Murder (2003). The cinematographer of Snowpiercer (2013), Hong Kyung-Pyo, returned to work on Parasite, as did the editor of Okja, Jinmo Yang*. Bong might be juggling genre-elements in his work, but his filmmaking family is a tight-knit bunch. ‘Everyone wants to collaborate with director Bong!’ explains Yang in our Skype conversation. We chatted about their work methods, about on-set editing and VFX editing techniques and about the role of the editor in the filmmaking process.
*The editor prefers his first name listed first.
IC: Can you tell me more about your professional relationship with director Bong?
JY: I have been working with director Bong since Snowpiercer. At the time I wasn’t the main editor. I worked on it as the on-set editor and also as a VFX-editor. But ever since Okja, I have been working with him as the main editor.
IC: Journalists and critics like to divide Snowpiercer and Okja as Bong’s American films and consider Parasite as his return to South-Korean cinema. Does this classification have an influence on what you do in the editing booth?
JY: Yes, I would say there’s more or less an impact in regards to the editing as well. Comparing how I worked on Okja and Snowpiercer to Parasite specifically: I guess I was more relaxed in a sense. I had more freedom when working on Parasite. Obviously, it was a hundred percent Korean language. The fact that it was all in Korean, that sort of helped me to get in a more relaxed mindset when dealing with the editing.
IC: Could you talk a bit about your method and the editing process for Parasite?
JY: Well, director Bong’s work is very well designed and well structured in terms of screenplay and storyboard. He is infamous for not shooting coverage and for not having a master. So, from the perspective of an editor, I guess I’d say I have less freedom. It’s not really about reconstructing the entire story. The challenge is more about making the best version out of everything I have. That is, more or less, the main challenge for me as the editor.
When I’m putting together the assembly, I’m obviously working scene by scene. We put together one scene and then move on to the next scene. But when the entire assembly is done, we go back and we sort of dissect. We look at the sequence as if we’re looking into a microscope. We go through it, shot by shot. But that’s actually how director Bong approaches filmmaking [in general] and my understanding is that he’s applying whatever he’s doing in his entire film to the editing process: starting with a big chunk and then going into the bits and pieces of the details.
Since I’ve been working with director Bong, his method has become my own process as well.
IC: You influenced each other, that makes sense. I understand director Bong particularly appreciated your specific set of skills with VFX editing. I believe you called it ‘stitch work’ in a previous interview?
JY: Unlike other directors, Bong doesn’t have inserts. He doesn’t really give you cutaways. So, for instance, he likes to use different takes of one shot. Say there are two characters within one shot. He might like to have two takes of Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) but takes only one of Ki-Taek (Song Kang Ho). But at the same time, he wants to use both [takes]. He would then say: I want to combine these two. So we have a moment where we can sort of cheat, where there’s a camera movement: a panning shot. So I would sort of stitch together those elements. Director Bong likes to use that stitching process. There are a lot of moments in the film where we have applied this method.
IC: Could you give me an example?
JY: Yes, for example, do you remember when Ki-woo is teaching Ki-teak? He’s being his acting-coach and they’re having a rehearsal in the semi-basement room. First, we see Ki-woo acting. He’s showing his father how to act. Then we have a quick pan and we see Ki-teak reenacting whatever his son has shown him. That is a scene where we applied this method of stitching.
This example is a simple case. There are times, however, where we need to borrow help from a VFX vendor. For instance, there is that scene where the Kims are having a drinking party at the Park’s mansion. There is a moment where Ki-Teak is drunk and he’s talking. There’s a really slow pan where we have a moment with Ki-Teak and Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin) both in the same shot. It’s not a quick pan, you can’t really swap the shot because we see both of them at the very same moment. But director Bong wanted to use a certain take for Ki-Teak and another take for Chung-sook. In this case, we would use the bottles in the foreground. Because it requires tracking of the actors and tracking of the bottles and whatnot, we select the takes and specify the timing. We’d then ask a VFX vendor to come in and help out to make it into one uninterrupted shot.
IC: I suspect that such detail-oriented work benefits from all the meticulous preparation that the director is known for. With all this work that awaits in the editing booth, you can’t have chaos on set or a problematic working relationship. Another way to be well prepared is on-set editing.
JY: The stitching technique, that’s not something we talk about during the production stage. Because director Bong obviously okays a specific shot and then we move on to another one. The stitching is something we only consider during postproduction.
But director Bong and I have been using the on set editing cleverly. That’s actually how I started … I got into filmmaking as an on-set editor. As an on-set editor, your general job is to make sure that the whole structure is working. You see right away whether or not a shot is working, you get a sense of how it’s looking. Overall, you get a sense of how the movie is coming together. For the director, this is wonderful. Because he gets to see that everything fits together, that the film will work as a whole.
They are reassured that they have everything they need in order to put together the film. However, in the case of director Bong, he’s clever to use the system to his advantage. Not only does he use it to check whether he has all the footage he needs. But as long as it doesn’t delay the entire production as a whole, he also uses on-set editing as a way to make sure he has all the complicated blocking he wants. That way, he tries everything out in a very organic way. He makes sure that everything is working out the way he envisioned it.
IC: As a way to anticipate every possible obstacle… I imagine you can’t see yourself working any other way, considering your background?
JY: For Parasite, I wasn’t an on-set editor. I sent my assistants. And they would be the on-set editor for me. But I imagine, like you said, that going forward and working on other films, it’ll always be important to have an on-set editor. Their role will always be crucial for me.
IC: In their relationship to the actors and to the work that ends up on the editing table, main editors have a very powerful position in the filmmaking process. With the edit decisions that you make, you have the power to make or break an actor and their career.
JY: I mean, here’s my reasoning: the main actors are what make the movie. To me personally, the editor’s job is a privilege. It’s a privilege to work on the project, to enlighten and bring out the best out of all the performances. I am very deliberate and conscious about it. Because my job is to understand how they perform and what kind of background they came from in order to come out with that performance. My job is to pick out the very best of their performance and to make it shine on the screen. So it’s an honor to work with performers and actors the way I have been doing.
IC: Taking so much pride in putting the best of yourself, and the best of others, in your work, it must at times be difficult to deal with pressure from people who want to see the editing done differently. I’m thinking specifically of the whole debate between Harvey Weinstein and Bong about the director’s cut of Snowpiercer. A director and a crew of filmmakers sometimes need to fight to tell their story in a certain way. But as an editor, that’s a fight you’re having every day. You have to defend your editing choices.
JY: I can’t really speak about Snowpiercer, because I wasn’t the main editor. But director Bong is one of the few directors in Korea who doesn’t get any pressure from studios. He has authority over all editing. So I’m very blessed in that way: it was pretty much the same for Okja and especially for Parasite. I was very fortunate and blessed to work that way. We had very little, if any, pressure from the outside in regards to the editing choices.
IC: It also sounds like you didn’t have much pressure from the director himself. In the sense that you very much seem to be on the same page.
JY: I’m very fortunate. Director Bong and I have a great relationship. As we continue to collaborate, our tastes are becoming very similar. Our rhythms, the tempo, have converged. So I was very fortunate and blessed in creating this working relationship with him.
Never once did we argue about a certain shot not working or a shot not being exactly right. We never have those kinds of arguments. If something isn’t working, we tend to work together as a team. If I have something to offer him, and I have a good reason for it, he usually accepts it and takes [my advice].
And that’s exactly why everyone wants to collaborate with director Bong! [chuckles]
IC: Parasite is really multiple films: it weaves multiple genres and their editing rhythms into one story. I found that was already the case with Okja. How does that translate to the editing booth? You have to find one rhythm that encapsulates all the different genres.
JY: When we were working on the editing, or even when director Bong was writing Parasite, we didn’t go about it in a conscious way, mixing or blending the genres. It wasn’t like: this part is suspense. From here to there, it’ll be a comedy. Our mind frame didn’t work like that. We were always thinking about [it] and we were always aware of how it’d affect the movie as a whole. So you might say: this moment will be suspenseful. And this part should be funny. It wasn’t that we categorized and separated [the film] into separate genres. We wouldn’t say: this part is supposed to be suspenseful so we have to apply all the rules of suspense. We didn’t work like that. We tried to approach [it] according to the moment of the film: if the suspense was required, we would [know how] to approach, compose and structure the cuts. That was how we made the film.
IC: Are there specific tools that you use to find the exact rhythm you want to give to a scene?
JY: I wouldn’t say there’s a specific technique. It’s more about how I see it and how I feel it. I mean, obviously, the most important thing is that I have to watch the footage many many times to know what is important. What is important to me is to understand how the actors approach the tempo of their performance. That sort of defines how we cut and put together the editing as well. I wouldn’t say there’s a formula per se. It’s more about how I feel about it. I actually consider how the audience will feel about a certain moment. They might think a certain shot is long. Or they might feel it’s dragging. So I try to think in the perspective of the audience as much as I can. Regarding comedy, I’m considering [that] if I’m going overboard, it might be slapstick. So I need to pull back just a little bit. So I wouldn’t say there is a certain formula or technique. It’s much more about how I feel and about considering the audience.
IC: I’m assuming you’re working on a project right now?
JY: Yes, I am. Currently, I’m working on Peninsula, the sequel to Train to Busan [which should be released during the summer of 2020.]
IC: Are you looking forward to the award season for Parasite?
JY: [chuckles] To be honest, it’d be great if we would make the shortlist for editing. That would be sensational! I’m excited about it … perhaps the Best Picture or Directing award?
After winning the Palme D’Or in Cannes, Parasite has spent the year bag-snatching awards in the international festival circuit. Last Sunday, director Bong accepted a Golden Globe for Foreign-language film with a tongue-in-cheek line that cements his place in the annals of award speeches: “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Parasite is confidently making its way to the Oscars.
This interview was conducted with the help of interpreter Chung Jaehuen. Parts of our conversation have been edited for clarity and brevity.