In Seoul, where I live, the success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite at this year’s Academy Awards — unprecedented for a non-American film, let alone a Korean one — did not go unnoticed. But even then, the celebration had already been underway at least since the movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Something of a homecoming for Bong after Snowpiercer and Okja, two projects made wholly or partially abroad, Parasite takes place entirely in Seoul, staging a socioeconomic grudge match between three families occupying starkly disparate places in the human hierarchy. The denouement is chaotic, but arrived at through the precision filmmaking with which Bong has made his name over the past two decades.
When Parasite‘s storyboards were published in graphic-novel form here a few months ago, I noticed ads in the subway promising a look into the mind of “Bongtail.” Though Bong has publicly declared his contempt for that nickname, it has nevertheless stuck as a reflection of his meticulous way of working.
The son of a graphic designer, he grew up not just watching movies but drawing comics, a practice that would later place him well to create his own storyboards. In so doing he assembles an entire film in his mind before shooting its first frame (a working process not dissimilar to that of Western filmmakers like the Coen brothers), which enables him and his collaborators to execute complex sequences such as what the Nerdwriter calls Parasite‘s “perfect montage.”
With the English translation of Parasite: A Graphic Novel in Storyboards now available, video essayists like Thomas Flight have made comparisons between Bong’s drawings and the film. Starting with that celebrated montage, Flight shows that, where the final product departs from its plan, it usually does so to simplify the hand-drawn action, making it more legible and elegant. In the short video just above, you can watch one minute of Parasite lined up with its corresponding storyboard panels, one of which incorporates a photograph of the real Seoul neighborhood in which Bong located the main characters’ home. This is rich storyboarding indeed, but in his introduction to the book, Bong explains that he doesn’t consider it essential to filmmaking, just essential to him: “I actually storyboard to quell my own anxiety.” Would that we could all draw worldwide acclaim from doing the same.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.