In an early scene of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a brief conversation between rich student Min-hyuk and his friend Ki-woo proves a crucial moment in the multi-Oscar winning film. “Tutor a rich kid. It pays well,” the scooter-riding Min-hyuk tells the impoverished Ki-woo, who lives in a semi-basement home with his family. And when Min-hyuk offers Ki-woo the opportunity to take over his job as a tutor for the rich Park family, he acts as a bridge between the two worlds, and sets the plot of the film in motion.
Min-hyuk is played by Park Seo Jun, and despite the brevity of Park’s appearance in Parasite, he will have been the first time most international audiences will have got a good look at him. Park is a big name in South Korea however, thanks to a string of successful domestic TV series – mostly romantic comedies such as She Was Pretty and Fight for My Way – and the Netflix hit Itaewon Class. Now his international profile is about to be raised, after it was confirmed he will be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe for Captain Marvel 2: The Marvels, appearing alongside Brie Larson, Iman Vellani and Zawe Ashton, making him the third South Korean actor to join the MCU.
“When I first heard that the Marvel Cinematic Universe wanted to speak with me, I couldn’t believe it. I actually couldn’t believe it,” Park says. He remains tight-lipped over the actual details, however. “I’m just trying to be careful with Marvel-related questions,” he laughs, looking a bit stressed. It’s no surprise, MCU actors are sworn to secrecy. “I’m not someone who has a fear of challenges, but whether I am filming in South Korea or abroad, everything is a challenge for me. So, I did feel some nerves at first. But everyone was so helpful and welcoming that I was able to find my feet really quickly.”
On the day we speak, Park is in Seoul, having just got back from filming in London. He looks lively in a green bomber jacket and denim shirt, and is happy to start talking before his LA-based management joins the call to monitor any sensitive Marvel information. “I didn’t come from a wealthy family and we had to move around a lot as a result, but I was able to meet a lot of different people at school and that made me more mature.” Hey breaks. “Some of my earliest memories from childhood are of me just trying to find my way, instead of memories of being happy all the time.”
The themes of Korean social inequality and financial difficulties that Parasite so brilliantly exposed have also found their way into Park’s other work. In the 2017 series Fight for My Way, Park played a taekwondo athlete, Ko Dong-man, who is forced to cancel his dreams of going to the Olympics after being burdened by his family debts and his sister’s life-changing surgery. Dong-man quits his dream and becomes a pest exterminator. “People in their 20s in South Korea are actually having a lot of difficulties, when it comes to just living in general,” Park says. “During my early days of acting, it was very difficult for me. In your 20s you have to work really hard but also be careful with everything. Life, love, career, passion – everything. Fight for My Way was one of the best dramas that could possibly portray these feelings. I could connect with Dong-man. At times, he failed and got frustrated with himself but he endured and showed up for himself. Among all the young people who were struggling, I got to express one young person’s hardships.”
In Itaewon Class, Park plays an ex-convict. On the surface it’s a story about revenge and retribution but it also features strong social commentary about how the rich abuse power. It was an instant success. “Itaewon Class appeared in the midst of the Korean movies and drama boom, and I got to make a lot of international fans,” says Park. It was only a matter of time before the world woke up to the world of Korean film and TV, the actor believes. Netflix and other streaming platforms gave international audiences access to these projects, and he says the Korean entertainment industry offered something new. “I personally feel that South Korea has been making a lot of effort and spending a lot of time creating good quality films and series, but it’s always been a bit of a hidden gem. There are a lot of good films and dramas and I want them to be recognized. I feel proud that I am able to contribute to this Korean boom.”
Park is also part of Wooga Squad (“I don’t know why we named it that; it just happened”), a friendship group with actor Choi Woo-Shik (who starred as Ki-woo in Parasite), BTS member V, actor Park Hyung-sik and artist Peakboy. “They are really good friends to me and very comforting,” Park says. It appears they help him deal with the intense pressure on Korean actors and “idols”. “Not only do we share the same values, thoughts and perspectives on things but we are in similar industries, and so we are able to share advice. We try to comfort each other as human beings, because what I am going through could be something that the others might go through in the future.”
I ask him what he does to relax. “I haven’t found the solution to that one yet!” he says. I tell him I picked up crocheting to help cope during the early days of the pandemic. A little puzzled at what I am attempting to act out, he turns to the interpreter. “Hooking?” But once he realizes what I am recommending, he laughs. “OK, I’ll try it!”