There has been a lot of fawning over director Bong Joon-ho recently, a man more than one reviewer has hyperbolistically described as having a perfect track record. With that and the unlikely western awards success of his latest, Bong, and Parasite, have gone from being just another highly-regarded eastern film director/film that would, Snowpiercer-like, make a splash in certain circles but not in the mainstream, into a director/movie squarely at the centre of the zeitgeist. And more power to him.
That kind of swing deserves kudos all of its own, even if I am not as enamored with Bong from my own limited interactions with his work . I found Snowpiercer to be a film that became too comically fantastical in its premise and environment for me to be able to swallow its serious underlying messages easily. Parasite seemed imminently more grounded if its marketing was to be believed, with a promised tale of suburban Seoul deception, surely more fallow ground for an expose of the inequality on Korean society than Snowpiercer was of the world in general. Was Bong able to change my mind on him, or is this another case of a critical darling lacking impact on this viewer?
The destitute Kim family – father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), wife Chung-soek (Jang Hye-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) – live in a dilapidated basement apartment, folding pizza boxes for low-pay. When Ki-woo gets the opportunity to become an English tutor to Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), daughter of wealthy father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) and ditzy mother Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), he begins a scheme to place the members of his family inside the Park household under false pretenses. At first the duplicity bears dividends, but soon complications inside the Park’s ultra-modern home rear their head, leading to the uncovering of deeper secrets and the shedding of blood.
Well, what a film this is. Regardless of what your overall opinion of Parasite is, it is simply undeniable that it is one of the most fascinating movies of recent times. It is, all at once, a family drama, a caper movie, a black comedy, a psychological thriller, and a social commentary, and somehow manages to carry all five of those aspects of pretty much flawlessly, with Bong jumping between them all in terms of tone and pitch, sometimes mid-scene. It’s easy to see why Parasite has garnered the laurels that it has.
The family drama is a duel thing. On the one hand you have the Kim’s, nominally a clan of naer-do-wells who have a penchant for deception and forgery. W’re introduced to them as they try to piggyback on someone else’s WiFi signal, and later they fold pizza boxes while leaving the window open, so they can take advantage of public fumigation. On the other you have the Park’s, a family with more money than sense, inhabiting their own private worlds inside a gigantic house. The central narrative is of the Kim’s inserting themselves bit-by-bit into the world of the Park’s, and Parasite could have been a good enough film if it just focused on that, such the quality of the back-and-forth between the criminally minded Kim’s, and the vapidity that marks so much of the interactions with and between the Park’s. The tight-knit nature of the Kim’s – broken only for a moment in a nerve-wracking scene that hints at domestic violence – only makes them more endearing, and adds to the allusion to the necessity in Korean society to be hard-working, cohesive unit in all things. But Bong takes this only as a starting point.
So it’s also a crime movie. I’ve spoken at length on other films about the difficulties that arise when your central characters are not heroic enough to get the audience on their side, and how this creates a vacuum in engagement that cannot be filled. Somehow, despite the main characters of Parasite being con-artists out only for their own enrichment, who are not perpetrating victimless crimes, Bong manages to dodge this particular bullet, and I’m still not exactly sure how.
Maybe it’s that there is a certain thrill in seeing the entire caper come together, most especially as each member of the Kim family manipulates events to get the next member into the Park household (a scheme involving a faked bout of TB is a particular stand-out). Maybe its the accompanying sense of exhilaration, at being in the know as an audience member. Maybe its the excellence of the performances, with the rigidly stoic Song playing off so well with his ambitious yet idealistic son played by Choi (Bong has had his largest success elsewhere with western actors, but that’s clearly just circumstance).
Maybe its because of the idiocy of the Park’s, who are succesfull people through non-underhanded means it seems, but who are unable to cook, clean dishes or properly relate to each other, exhibiting a blissful detachment from the real world when they aren’t looking down on the lower classes. Maybe its the strength of the script (and the translation job done on the subtitles, some of the best you’ll see). And maybe it is all of these things. Regardless, you do find yourself, bizarrely, egging the Kim’s on, and hoping that they might be able to, despite their negative nature at times, find a way to crawl out of the literal hole they are in at the start of the film.
And it never hurts to be funny of course. Bong, with help from writer Han Jin-won, has crafted a genuinely mirthful farce, at least in its first half or so. The penury of the Kim’s is played up for comic effect rather well, between their WiFi woes or the repeated encounters with a urinating man outside of their window. The almost preposterous nature of their many schemes, all carried out initially with a flawlessness that belies their determination, will make you chuckle. The Park’s are a whirlwind of their own foibles, be it the put upon mother obsessed with arranging “art therapy” for their son, the romantically inclined daughter very easily falling into relationships with successive English tutors or the somewhat ridiculous way that the parents engage in sexual activity. The dark nature of it is ever-present – the Kim’s are hiding, inches away, from the Park’s when said sex is happening – but stops the story from becoming too grim for the audience to connect.
The humour falls away around the midpoint, as Parasite turns into a psychological thriller after a mid-second act twist that doesn’t entirely come out of nowhere: it is lamp-shaded effectively a few times in the run-up. To go into much more detail would be to ruin the entirety of the production, so I will limit myself to saying that the title of the film is worked upon masterfully to create multiple layers of story-telling, that create a truly awesome sense of tension in the final hour or so. It is rare that you will find a film that balances the emotions of the viewer on the edge of a knife as well as Parasite does.
That leaves us with the last key aspect of Parasite, namely the social commentary that makes up such a significant part of it. The film is wrapped up in the so called “Hell Joseon” sentiment that has become part of the discourse in Korea, a youth-driven criticism of the inequality of their society, between the western-obsessed haves, and the perpetually stuck have-nots. To wit: the Park’s, ignorantly wealthy and not needing to think too much about those less fortunate, are able to dabble in the English language and western customs, while the Kim’s have no ability to legitimately get out of their desperate circumstances, quite literally stuck in the bottom rung. A sequence in the second half of the film is a brilliant visual representation of the divide, as the Kim’s deal with the flooding of their wretched basement apartment – an all-too common event in Seoul’s poorest neighbourhoods – an event that the Park’s remain mostly removed from (except when the comment about how the good the rain is for Seoul) safe and dry in society’s upper echelons.
Of course, the fact that the film is so centered on Korea and its idiosyncrasies, be they obsession with Taiwanese pastry or instant noodles matched with sirloin steak, does not mean that everyone else is going to put off. Anyone can understand how the absurdity of late-stage capitalism is eviscerated throughout the film, in numerous memorable ways: in the mountains of pizza boxes the Kim’s are obliged to fold for a measly pittance; in the way that the Park’s throw together a birthday party at the last second for their son, while shattered Seoul residents elsewhere pick up the pieces from a flood; or in how the Park’s are so far removed from their societal inferiors that they claim to detect an unpleasant smell from the Kim’s, a stench rooted in poverty. Like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, Bong presents the issue of class inequality, but unlike Johnson he does not proffer solutions to the problem in the same manner – aside from some extreme events in the finale – perhaps leaving it to the audience to ponder.
The most brilliant allusion in Parasite, aside from how the title works both ways, is how even with their success in infiltrating the Park family, the Kim’s remain on a lower level, trodden down and treated as less than, complicit in propping up the system that cares so little for them. They may have money coming in – enough to pay for WiFi – and they may get to pretend at being part of the upper tier, but they are still just housekeepers, drivers, tutors and “art therapists”, disposable accouterments to a lifestyle that might as well be based on the other side of the galaxy it is so alien, and unattainable, to them. No matter what, the Park’s live in what is almost an actual castle on a hill, while the Kim’s live in what is a quasi public toilet. This revelation is key to the film’s last 30 minutes or so, when the illusion of success becomes ever more strained: various characters’ efforts to deal with the dichotomy drive the final, tension-filled sequences forward. The ending is bound to be a sore point for some people, forging a concrete conclusion in favour of something a bit harder to quantify – not unlike Snowpiercer – but I thought it capped off a captivating production well enough.
It’s a great looking production. Whatever problems I had with Snowpiercer, it still looked interesting (in a good way), and Bong carries on with that here: interesting and good, all the way. The Park home, constructed for the film, is a masterpiece of design, be it the wide-open living room that acts almost like a stage in its eerily exact dimensions and angles, the clean to the point of being sterile kitchen, the elegant stairways that act as societal barriers, or the claustrophobic and dark basement hiding its secrets (with a pitch black doorway leading to it from the kitchen, from which ghosts arise; I can’t have been the only way thinking of the doorway from Bojack Horseman’s “The View From Halfway Down”). It’s a combination of art gallery, citadel and dungeon. It’s contrasted excellently with the Kim’s quagmire at the bottom of Seoul. Bong has repeated visual motifs that he hits on again and again to make his points, be they stairways (the phrase “upstairs/downstairs movie” applies here in more than one way), windows (large clean and clear in the Park home, a an entry for sewage water for the Kim’s) or the bizarre painting crated by the Park son (a dark hint at some of the home’s unlikely mysteries).
From a cinematography viewpoint, Parasite is simple, but stellar. There are some really subtle movements, like Bong’s penchant for slow zooms on otherwise static shots, that do wonders for the sense of mood. He’s demonstrates a great understanding at the depiction of space in the Park house, and in confinement elsewhere. While in no way a colourful movie, the drabness of Seoul, wherein a well maintained lawn really stands out, only emphasises the larger points that the film is making. That it really, why I appreciated Parasite on a visual level so much: Bong crafts every other shot with details that accentuate the larger production. The best example is the framing of both families: the Kim’s are frequently shot together, sitting side-by-side at the dinner table or hiding underneath it, while the Park’s are decidedly more singular in the eye of the camera. Or, in another sequence, when Seoul is treated like it has been the subject of a cross-section, as the Park’s move from the glorious heights to the grim, washed-away underworld.
So, it is fair to say that I really, really liked Parasite, and have come to fully understand why it has been able to capture the imagination of so many. I no longer raise an eyebrow at what can only now be viewed as inevitable efforts to westernise this story, in the form of remakes or TV series adaptations (they’ll probably miss the entire point, which seems centered on Korea to an irreparable degree). This is a great movie.
My opinion of Bong had been well and truly reversed. The man who smashed his audience with a metaphorical plot hammer in Snowpiercer has grown up a bit. Bong’s Parasite lives up to the constant descriptor of it being his masterpiece: a film that perfectly balances many different aspects, is entertaining in its own right, thought-provoking in its engaging narrative and a showcase for its director, writers and wonderful cast. More than anything else, I came back to the most accurate adjective that I can think of: that this is a fascinating movie, more than anything else, something that must be seen to be truly understood and appreciated. So, go see it. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of CJ Entertainment).