Parasite is breaking ground as the first South Korean film nominated for Best International Feature, Best Director, and Best Picture Oscars—and it will be the first South Korean film to win an Oscar, for Best International Feature, if nothing else—but it’s also remarkable for another reason: Parasite is a contemporary film nominated for its production design. Best Production Design, like Best Costume Design, most often goes to period pieces but will sometimes skew toward fantasy films like Lord of the Rings, where the work is most obvious. Contemporary films usually get overlooked, because what’s so special about a film that looks like now? In the last 20 years, Best Production Design has gone to two contemporary films, La La Land and Black Panther. The other seventeen Oscars went to period and fantasy films. So it’s not likely that Parasite will win Best Production Design (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the favorite), even though the design of this film is exquisite.
Bong Joon-ho has been talking about the design of the film, though, including sharing some early sketches with The Hollywood Reporter. Spoilers abound for those who still haven’t seen the film, but if you have, check out the sketches among his notes, and you can see how precisely structured key moments in the film are from the very beginning. Team Parasite has also been talking about the Park family home, which was built on a stage and completed with visual effects. The design team, led by production designer Lee Ha-jun and set decorator Cho Won-woo, even went so far as to buy a $2300 trash can for the Parks’kitchen because it had a “cinematic lid” and closed with a cool sound effect.
That’s the kind of close attention being paid to Parasite’s production design: No ordinary trash can would do, it must be an expensive, German trash can only rich people who refuse to acknowledge trash would have. It’s a shame contemporary design is so often overlooked, because pound for pound, Parasite’s production design is as good as any period piece of 2019. And it’s not just good design, it’s meaningful design that reinforces the themes of the film. But this is a category it’s not going to win, so let’s admire Bong’s sketches and clarity of vision, and the superb realization of that vision, now.