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On Netflix and next projects, a night in genre-king Bong Joon-Hos lecture hall

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Enlarge / Seated in the simulcast overflow room for Bong Joon-Ho (center). Evidently the first ~350 person lecture hall filled up an hour and a half early. There were definitely people sitting on the floor in the second.Nathan Mattise

AUSTIN, Texas—Usually when people line up for two hours or more in Austin, Texas, barbecue awaits at the other end. But the Fleming Lecture Hall at the University of Texas didn't suddenly start producing world-class brisket last Wednesday. Instead, in what may be a first, roughly 700 people lined up and then descended upon the humble classroom for a lecture at 5pm on a weeknight.

Technically, it was a guest lecture. And in fairness, it's not every Wednesday that South Korean genre film legend Bong Joon-Ho (Snowpiercer, Okja) is both in Austin and available to sit for student questions.

But the best genre-film festival in the US (Fantastic Fest) was taking place a few miles south of UT's campus throughout last week, and Bong's latest work, Parasite, screened among the closing films. The filmmaker's PR rep also happens to be a UT alum, and so a special campus viewing took place earlier in the week ahead of this—the one time no one seemed willing to skip an evening lecture.

  • Earlier this week, Director Bong Joon-Ho in front of what was then known as the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (aka the location of Fantastic Fest). Jack Plunkett / Fantastic Fest
  • L to R: Actor Choi Woo-shik, Actor Song Kang-Ho, and Bong Joon-ho of Parasite at the Toronto International Film Festival. Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for NEON
  • A still from Parasite showing the family at the film's center. Neon / Fantastic Fest
  • Always check your local alt-weekly's event listings, all. Austin Chronicle
  • Bong clearly has a sense of humor and is game for a lot (including speaking to undergrads and having an entire screening audience dress like his film's poster). Heather Kennedy / Fantastic Fest
  • Hmmm… Bong Joon-ho is leading a toast after Parasite finally screened at Fantastic Fest on Thursday evening. Heather Kennedy / Fantastic Fest
  • …because Alamo Drafthouse founder and NEON productions co-founder Tim League (L) renamed the freakin' entire theater in Bong's honor after the director brought Parasite to Texas this week. Heather Kennedy / Fantastic Fest
  • The inscription: "In modern classics like Memories of Murder, Mother, and Parasite, director Bong Joon Ho inspires and challenges us with a pitch-perfect blend of humanity, suspense, humor, and craft. His work reminds us why we love cinema…" Heather Kennedy / Fantastic Fest

Not film school, but films then school

Bong started by quickly admitting to not being the ideal role model for any future film students in attendance. He studied sociology back in his university days in the 1980s, but really he spent more time in a nearby theater than any classroom. "When I first went to college, I thought, 'I'll major in anything and join a film club,'" Bong said. (The filmmaker took questions in English but largely responded for the audience via a translator.) "So I did and rarely went to class."

But South Korea at that time was itself an education—the country was essentially transitioning out from underneath a military regime, so Bong supplemented his sociology studies simply by keeping his head up. "Society was very dynamic with students still protesting," he said. "Observing the students around me was my education rather than just textbooks."

Any advice, teach?

Given a significant portion of the audience was made of UT film students, Bong did offer some practical tips for filmmakers. For instance, he tries to begin his scripts with scenarios rather than individuals. "I come up with the plot and situations—I will rarely begin with a character, but I always think, 'What would they do in this situation,' no matter how random it may be," he said. "Sometimes when a very passionate actor comes to me and says, 'I wrote a three years diary for my character,' and they want [the character's] personal history, I'm also curious about what they're writing. I prefer to maintain that curiosity. I don't believe [a character's] actions and psychology is consistent; they can change depending on the situation."

And when it comes to translating that script to the set from the director's chair, Bong suggests focusing on the literal vision. "I don't think it makes sense to direct their performance. Actor's act; I just help," he said. "So I think about relationships between the actor and the camera—how is it moving? What size is the frame? I tend to obsess over story boards, and you won't find a lot of differences between them and finished films. I meticulously set up the camera and set, then throw actors on there. It's a bit of a paradox, because then I ask them to relax and improvise. I like to be surprised."

For fans of Bong's work, that dynamic between those in control and those subjected to it likely sounds familiar. In the sci-fi/action mash-up Snowpiercer, survivors of some climate change counteractions gone wrong live on a train arranged by societal standing. In the horror thriller Mother, a small village treats a boy with intellectual disabilities poorly to their detriment. Near-future Okja has corporations versus animal activists; Parasite is 99% versus the 1%. Often this dynamic gets dressed up in multiple genres, but the central idea is very based in reality.

"With Parasite, in the US and Europe, they comment on how the film mixes genres," Bong said when asked about how his films get received differently across the globe. "But Korean audiences see it as close to reality. A lot of people mention how their lives are; some smelled themselves after leaving the theater."

While the writer/director's cultural nuance came on campus, Bong's affinity for genre started long before that. He recalls studying some Asian filmmakers closely at university (like Hou Hsiao-hsien), but "the films that have permeated my body and stay in my bloodstream are the genre films from the US I watched when I was little."

As a kid, Bong recalls staying up late at night until his family fell asleep in order to watch AFKN, a network broadcasting American productions for servicemen stationed in Korea at the time. He loved the thrillers of John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), for instance, and obviously these influences became ingrained only to later resurface in things like Snowpiercer and Parasite.

"They played a lot of midnight films with quite a lot of sex and violence, films you couldn't see on Korean channels at the time," he said. "And because IRead More – Source