Director: Bong Joon Ho
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-sik, Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin, Lee Sun-kyun, Jo Yeo-jeong, Jung Ji-so, Jung Hyun-jun, Lee Jeong-eun
“A comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains,” is how revered Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho describes his latest film, Parasite. After spending the best part of the last decade operating in the realm of the international co-production, Bong returns home to South Korea for this surprising, visually striking, genre-bending comedy-thriller, the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and Chung-sook Kim (Jang Hye-jin) live with their young adult children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam) in a small, basement apartment in an alleyway where drunks will occasionally urinate against their one street height window. Dirt poor, they make ends meet through gig-economy jobs like folding pizza boxes, and by stealing internet from neighbours who happen to leave their wifi networks unsecured. But things start to turn around for the Kim family when an old friend of Ki-woo offers to recommend him for a job as English tutor to the teenage daughter of an upper-class family, the Parks. After winning over Mrs. Park (Jo Yeo-jeong) with the help of some fudged credentials, Ki-woo spots the opportunity to set up his sister, who he pretends to be a classmate of his cousin’s, as an art tutor for the Parks’ hyperactive young son. Some further callous manoeuvring creates opportunities for their father to become Mr. Park’s (Lee Sun-kyun) driver and their mother to become the Parks’ housekeeper, all while concealing their being family. The scam is working perfectly until young Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun) notices that all his family’s new employees have the same odd smell.
From Snowpiercer’s post-apocalyptic vision of a segregated society living on a perpetually moving train, to Okja’s fable of a corporation genetically engineering ‘super pigs’ for more ‘ethical’ human consumption, and even The Host in which a monster is created by callous American scientists dumping chemicals in Seoul’s Han river, Bong Joon Ho has continually shown himself to be obsessed with the horrors of capitalism and related themes of consumption and class. Parasite brings him back to this same territory but does away with any allegory, tackling these ideas directly – not that anyone would accuse his previous films of being subtle in their messaging.
Working with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo and production designer Lee Ha-jun, Bong creates a stark visual contrast between the worlds of the Kims and the Parks. The Kims literally live a subterranean existence while the Parks’ home is atop a hill, bathed in natural light with a spacious, green yard. The Kim’s apartment is cluttered and claustrophobic while the Parks’ house is open, with high ceilings, large windows and minimalist furnishing. The difference between the haves and have nots is abundantly clear, yet rather than indulge in simple class-based binaries, Bong embraces complexity. While the Kims are our resourceful underdogs, the Parks are shown to be nice people. While they might be a little frivolous and perhaps self-indulgent, they are never spiteful or cruel. They have their own problems and Bong ensures that a certain amount of our empathy lies with them. They are not cast as the villains in this class battle. Rather, Parasite is a film about systemic economic injustice which positions the poor against each other. The turning point in this narrative does not come from the Parks discovering the Kims’ scheme, but rather when the impact of what the Kims have done on the people they displaced becomes apparent.
While not indulging in the sort of fantastical storytelling that his reputation has thus far been built on, Bong is still playing with genre expectations and tone here. You think you are watching one thing and then, with the flick of a switch, it becomes something quite different. As we watch this poor family set about scamming the unknowing wealthy family, the film takes on the form of a fun upstairs-downstairs farce. But as this tightly plotted narrative shifts and unfolds through meticulously executed twists we find ourselves moving from comedy through thriller and ultimately into the realm of horror.
Parasite is a hilarious film until all of a sudden it is not and the deadly seriousness of its subject matter sets in. In its bloody denouement it ultimately reminds us that poverty, and the desperation and resentment that it can breed, is no laughing matter. Bong handles these different gears, and the shifts between them, masterfully, making Parasite a brilliant and surprising film that is undoubtedly one of the year’s best.
Review by Duncan McLean
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