When actress Park So-dam got the message that Bong Joon-ho was considering her for one of his upcoming films, she laughed, thinking the person conveying the message was kidding. Despite having appeared in several significant films, such as The Silenced, which won her a Best Supporting Actress award from the Busan Film Critics Awards, and subsequently acting in Veteran, The Throne, and The Priests, the timing of such a great opportunity was hard to believe.
“I was taking a break and trying to figure out my career and my path,” said Park. “It seemed unreal.”
The role Bong wanted her to play was Kim Ki-jung, the daughter of a poor but criminally resourceful family in his film Parasite, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and the South Korean entry for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.
Park felt an immediate connection to her Parasite character, contributing, no doubt, to her strong onscreen presence in that film. Her character, Ki-jung pretends to be an art teacher for the child of a rich family, when in fact she has artfully forged her credentials. Ironically, drawing under her supervision might actually be doing her young charge some good.
“When I first received the script, it was as if I wrote all of the lines, so it felt very natural, the role came naturally to me,” said Park. “There weren’t any points where I had to memorize the lines or didn’t understand the lines. I felt I understood her very well and couldn’t wait to act the scenes. It was one of those instances where it felt so natural, that everything flowed through me.”
While playing the likable con artist helped make Park an international celebrity, her early acting career included multiple rejections. Her family originally discouraged her career choice, worried about the difficulties she might face as an actress. Eventually they relented.
“After they saw me coming home at night, exhausted, but happy, then they became more supportive, because they wanted me to be happy,” said Park. “That was the biggest motivation for me, support from my family. I was also lucky enough to meet such amazing people in the industry and that kept me going.”
Choi Woo-sik, who plays her enterprising brother Kim Ki-woo, said he felt an instant connection when he met Park, thinking they looked enough alike to be actual siblings.
“We had such good chemistry working together,” said Choi. “It was perfect.”
The Korean-Canadian actor also faced some early rejection when starting his acting career in Canada. However, once he returned to Korea, his career took off.
“I did a lot of auditions and had a lot of fails in the beginning,” said Choi. “When I was growing up in Vancouver I wanted to be a director. I didn’t know how to begin, so I started studying theater-related stuff. When I came to Korea, I landed the first audition. A lot of people go to an acting academy or they get privately tutored, but I learned how to act on the set, so it was really fun. Acting school with real lessons from real life.”
Choi says he shares some characteristics with his character, Ki-woo, including an admiration for personal drive, but a reluctance to always follow through. After the obviously smart Ki-woo fails the university entrance exam four times, he tries to beat the system by pretending to qualify as an English tutor.
When Choi compares himself to Ki-woo, he’s being modest, since his successful acting career demonstrates both drive and follow-through. Since arriving in Korea, he’s appeared in a dozen films, including the zombie thriller Train to Busan and a previous Bong Joon Ho film Okja, as well as a dozen TV dramas, including Hogu’s Love, The Package, and Fight For My Way.
Given that Parasite was Choi’s second time working with the acclaimed director, he hoped he might feel less nervous.
“When I was in Okja I was really, really nervous,” said Choi. “Even though I had a small role, I felt a lot of pressure. I thought I would feel more comfortable when it was my second time, but I was wrong. I had more to do and I was still really nervous. Director Bong made me really comfortable. He made every set very friendly, family like. It was fun working with him. Every actor should experience working with Bong.”
One of the things that most impressed Park about working with the director was the detailed way he approached filmmaking.
“The most surprising thing was how tight and detailed Director Bong’s storyboard was,” said Park. “Director Bong wrote the storyboard with every movement of every scene in mind.”
The level of detail may be one of the reasons that the film is so cinematically satisfying, with every scene visually conveying aspects of the larger concept. Even the multi-level house where the Parks live, and that the Kims infiltrate, was created to fit Bong’s vision.
“The house on the set was built on the basis of the synopsis, not the other way around,” said Park. “The art director said that in reality this kind of house structure wouldn’t exist. Everything was based on what the director had in mind, so it was a very different experience.”
As with other Bong Joon-ho films, Parasite has an underlying social message about an exploitive class system that is the dark underbelly of prosperity. A poor family finds a way to scam a rich family by providing services for them. The rich family seems to be the host and the poor family the parasite, although they feed off each other. As in nature, a parasite cannot take too much from its host or risk losing the host and thus its own support system. A system in which some must be subservient to exist off the crumbs of others is ultimately doomed to fail and in this film it does so horrifically.
For Park, the way the tragicomedy’s storyline allows viewers to identify with members of both families, makes it easier for audiences to focus on the larger issue of income inequality.
“If you notice the Park family and the Kim family have the same structure—father, mother, daughter, son, but in such a tragic way, there’s a different dynamic within,” said Park. “Anyone who watches the film can relate to either family and with that basis the film sends a message that can change society.”
Responding to the questions raised by Bong’s films is not new for Choi. When he worked on Okja, the film provoked conversations about the morality of killing animals for food, so it’s not surprising to see Parasite prompt discussion.
“I believe movies and dramas play a big role in shaping how people see things and can change a lot of people’s minds as to how they see poverty,” said Choi. “At first I thought people in other countries might not be able to relate culturally, but these problems are universal, so I’m pretty sure other audiences will feel much the same way as Korean audiences.”
Whether or not this film earns an Academy Award, both actors have specific goals. Although Park has done more films than TV dramas, she’s not ruling out small screen appearances.
“I don’t want to limit myself to one or the other,” said Park. “In the early stages of my career, not knowing what’s better for me, I tried everything that came my way from theater to drama to films. Every different genre has different parts that I like, pros and cons. I originally set out to be a musical actor, so at some point I would like to try that as well.”
Even if Choi does not get to visit Hollywood for the awards, he would like to work there one day, describing it as an “ultimate goal.”
“Before, there weren’t as many Asian actors in Hollywood but right now it’s kind of changing,” said Choi. “I’m hoping people in Hollywood will test more Asian actors, so I can try acting in a different environment.”
This film definitely provides a calling card for all the actors in its ensemble. Parasite, which also stars Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, and Cho Yeo-jeong, had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and participated in the 57th New York Film Festival.
This story was originally published on forbes.com.