Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Stars: Song Kang-Ho, Lee Sun-Kyun, Cho Yeo-Jeong
Throughout his career, writer/director Bong Joon-Ho has been preoccupied with matters of class and entitlement. From the underdog family at the centre of monster-movie riff The Host to the very premise of train-bound sci-fi Snowpiercer. Bong has a penchant for asking us to root for the downtrodden. Now, returning to his native South Korea following two Western productions, he takes a deeper dive into this pool. But disturbing the surface has a habit of muddying the waters.
Parasite is a tale of two houses; a literal upstairs/downstairs of economic status. The Park family live in a spacious two-story smart home positioned at the top of a hill. They have full-time staff. Mr Park (Lee Sun-Kyun) is the CEO of a profitable company. Then there’s the Kim family, who live in a run-down and poky basement apartment in a back alley. The highs and lows of society are written into the film’s topography.
But the Kims are nothing if not industrious. Honing in on the Park clan, the various family members cleverly insinuate themselves into their lives. Siblings Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-Shik) and Ki-Jung (Park So-Dam) respectively take jobs as tutors to the Parks’ young children, using a daisy chain of recommendations and backhanded tactics to obtain positions for their parents, too. Patriarch Ki-Taek (Song Kang-Ho) becomes the family driver; his wife Yeon-Kyo (Cho Yeo-Jeong) replaces the family’s long-serving housemaid. The family are con-artists, blithely taking advantage of the gullible rich in order to improve their own sorry lot.
Their methods are sometimes scandalous, putting the viewer on the back-foot with regards to how much empathy they ‘deserve’. The Parks are no easier to pin down. They’re not monsters. There’s a loving, largely healthy family unit on display here. And yet they exist within a bubble of privilege that has also poisoned their senses. Both Park and his wife Yeon-Kyo (Jo Yeo-Jeong) comment on how badly poor people smell – something which Ki-Taek quite justifiably finds insulting. Elsewhere, a torrential rainstorm displaces hundreds of working class families, but Yeon-Kyo can only see the downpour as a blessing; something refreshing that has cleared the air (that same insinuation again).
The crafty social dynamics of the film are a marvel in themselves, but Bong isn’t near finished with us yet. This review is loathe to wade much further into the knotty reveals of Parasite. Safe to say there’s another layer at work here, one that brings new questions to the fore. Bong seems to be interested in the question of servitude and conditioning. Metaphorically, to what degree are we coerced throughout our lives into accepting a prison sentence over freedom? How deeply is our position in the hierarchy of class affecting our decisions, and our sense of place? There are some tricky customers lying in wait. We are scuttling rats. Bong has put together a maze for us to run through, but it is not devoid of traps.
Spatial awareness is another area in which Parasite shines. A large portion of the film takes place in the Park family’s lavish home. Bong stages his action around the open-plan space very deliberately, allowing us to learn the layout without making its geography seem like exposition. Knowing where everything is – or thinking that you know – is key to the delights to come. The mid-section of the film particularly takes advantage of this, with some wonderfully executed farce that takes place during a lightning storm (fans of Frasier or hide-and-seek aficionados will get plenty of kicks out of this stretch).
Parasite arrives in the UK last on its all conquering tour of the globe. The snowball effect on the film’s reputation since its Palme D’Or win at Cannes last spring is considerable. Along the way it’s been gobbling up praise, gongs and even usurped The Godfather as the highest rated narrative film of all time on Letterboxd. That’s a lot of expectation to vault. It almost completely achieves. While the ratcheting of tension is masterful – and Bong himself is on the finest form of his career – the inevitable third act combustion is a dizzying experience, uncorking the film from its bottled-up claustrophobia. It’s confrontational, asking the viewer to make decisions on how they feel about various characters that they’ve grown to know and understand.
This is not a criticism. Merely a warning that Parasite is not a passive experience. It will challenge you in ways you may not be expecting.
Technically, the film is flawless. South Korean cinema has a habit of wiping the floor with Western prowess in ways I’m always exhilarated to encounter. Bong’s visual acuity is sharp as a tack, befitting this intensely clever story. But it’s worth noting also that his actors sell it all so wonderfully. There’s not a weak link in this terrific ensemble.
I kept thinking about Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters, and how that film showed us a poorer-than-poor family unit that thrived on the kind of ingenuity rarely depicted among the most privileged and gifted. Parasite feels like a film in conversation with Kore-Eda’s. But where Kore-Eda is an out-and-out humanist storyteller, Bong’s work often comes with a wry, misanthropic smirk, perhaps never more-so than here.