'Parasite' Music Director Jung Jaeil on Expressing Art & Life Through Music

Neon / courtesy Everett Collection

Park So-dam and Choi Woo-sik in Parasite. 2019.

Parasite, the first-ever foreign-language film to win best picture at the Academy Awards, became a sensation on the global film scene. Some of the attention focused a spotlight on Darcy Paquet -- who translated the Korean lines seamlessly into English subtitles -- and Sharon Choi, the interpreter who smoothly communicated director Bong Joon Ho’s words. But another person worked very hard behind the scenes to contribute to the film's global success.

That unsung hero is Jung Jaeil, the music director who scored Parasite. A former child prodigy, Jung has shown remarkable musical talent from an early age. Now, encompassing a wide range of genres from pop music to scores in theater, film, musicals and traditional Korean Gugak music, Jung has become an accomplished music producer and artist. Billboard Korea asked him about his work as the music director of Parasite, how he got involved in the film and his favorite scene.

How did you get involved with Parasite?

I first met Joon ho Bong as a producer on the film Sea Fog which led me to direct the music for his film Okja. One day, he messaged to say that he had just finished writing a film script. I wondered if that meant he wanted to work with me again. We ended up and working on it together and that’s Parasite.

What did Bong want in the sound?

While Okja was a road movie requiring dramatic music for each chapter, Parasite needed a structure that felt continuous yet powerful enough to bring viewers closer to the scene. I needed to arrange the instruments to reflect that in the music.

It has a baroque feeling to it. What made you think that it would suit the film?

We needed to find a tone that sets the mood for the entire film. We thought of baroque style music and some string instruments. I had already thought of Handel’s arias and experimented with the music from different angles. I wanted to emphasize the character's views in a somewhat religious way, but remain elegant yet comical through the music. 

The rhythm has an eerie if not ominous stillness. What kind of thoughts came to your mind when you worked on them?

When I was watching edited cuts of the film, I was captured by the story and the images that conveyed. I thought of different social classes and the sounds unfolded like a staircase – it wasn’t intentional but I realized afterwards that had a lot of rise and fall, just like a staircase.

What is the most memorable scene of the film for you? 

The moment Gi Taek (played by Kang Ho Song) a good-natured man but with no job or hope meets Dong Ik (Played by Sun Kyun Lee) the CEO of global IT company and how it escalates into Gi Taek’s urge to commit a murder. It shows two very different lives juxtaposed together. 

Is there any particular music that takes you back to a certain moment?

One day when I was a teen, I was laying on the grass after rehearsing for an outdoor music performance. As I was laying there listening to some tunes, [Pietro Mascagni's] "Cavalleria Rusticana" began playing. I was gazing at the sunlight shining through the canopy of leaves, my tears began to fall. It was just beautiful.

What does music mean to you?

I can answer that in many different ways, but it is something I'm grateful for. I love what I do for a living and it energizes me.

So you could never experience “Music Deficiency?”

No, it is what I do all the time. But sometimes, when I need a break, I close my eyes and think of [dancer/choreographer] Pina Bausch's works.

In comparison to stage music, what's the most appealing aspect of working on music for films?

I'm an introvert. Projects that demand me to collaborate with so many people, such as theatrical productions, are quite stressful for me [laughs]. Whereas with films, I just need to communicate with directors, understand the messages they want to convey and reflect that in the work. I prefer it because I can work on my own and use my imagination.

Is there something in particular that you enjoy doing when you aren’t working?

I love dance, especially contemporary dance. Whenever I have time, I travel to Europe and watch as many performances as possible. About two to three times a year, I visit Wuppertal in Germany to watch the Pina Bausch company performing. When I arrive at Düsseldorf Airport, I drive to the theater. The way there feels always warm, so beautiful and it makes me think of the song “The Road to You."

What would you like to accomplish through music?

I would like to create a musical piece that echoes our daily lives. echoes our daily life. I don’t want to be entirely consumed by art and lose the connection with the world we live in.

What is next for you?

As always, I want to be where music is needed. I'm going to try a lot of different things. This fall, I will be directing a production of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I am always grateful to those who have supported me and taken an interest in my work.


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