Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Finally, after wowing critics, bloggers and general audiences all around the world, Bong Joon Ho’s seventh film Parasite has hit our shores. And if you’ve read anything about it, then you’ll probably already know that it’s best to read as little else as possible about it. As such, though I’ve written over eight hundred words here and am intentionally vague on anything outside the first half-hour, you may want to skip to the rating. Heck, I’ll save you the time: it’s five stars and, provided it stands up to rewatches, it may even be among my favourite films of the last decade. It’s a modern masterpiece, that will please art-house aficionados and casual cinema-goers alike. Now if you want to know nothing more then go, and hope to see you back on the site soon. Jim will probably have a review of Birds of Prey up in the next few days, so don’t be a stranger.
For those still with me, I’ll keep it simple. It’s a tale of two families. First, we have the Kims: a family who literally smell like poverty. They stay in a semi-basement i.e. a street-level apartment drunk people piss against. And they’re so broke they have to open their window during street fumigation for pest control and leech wifi from non-password protected neighbours/ businesses. That’s until one day the son Ki-woo, who dreams of escaping poverty by going to uni, tells a few fibs to land a job as an English language tutor to the daughter of our second family: the Parks. Who are so rich that they not only hire their daughter a tutor but also want to find someone to do art therapy with their child son. Conveniently Ki-woo knows the perfect candidate: his sister Ki-jung, who pretends to be a US art-college graduate. So begins a social-class caper, as the Kims lie and cheat to infiltrate their rich counterparts to fill different domestic servant roles. It’s a mission they can only manage because Mrs Park is “Rich but nice” and Mr Park barely registers staff as people provided they don’t “cross the line”. Then things take a darker turn.
From my cautiously worded synopsis, it may sound as if the Kim family are the parasite of the title, given they make their livelihood by duplicity and falsehoods. But Joon-ho’s approach is more nuanced than that. The Kims may be grifters, but they are also grafters. It’s this work ethic, along with the intimacy of being in on their cons, that makes us not only complicit but allows for a wicked joy at being in on it. Besides, given they are conning their way from underclass to working-class, it’s an indictment of how difficult it is to get by that they have to be this crafty to get such menial work. Danny Ocean wouldn’t be seen dead doing this. The title also applies just as much, if not more, to the Parks: detached and privileged and entirely dependent upon the servitude of others. In that respect, the families share in a symbiotic relationship. The idea that the Park’s money will trickle down to the Kims is, of course, a fantasy. But it’s one that offers them hope when things at their worst. Yet it’s this hope that pushes them to increasingly dubious measures to preserve their ruse. Maybe the most impressive aspect of Parasite is in how well the political message gets integrated into every level of the film. From the plot to the characterisation, and how well the different Seouls get worked into its aesthetic, it’s a film about how wealth and its pursuit contaminate society. It’s an angry, scathing critique of South Korean capitalism, under which social advancement is a Sisyphean task, and the associations between those at the top and the bottom are solely transactional.
If this focus on allegories sounds bleak or boring, don’t worry. Bong Joon Ho is a master at working his messages into sort-of genre films, such as The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer and Netflix’s giant-porker flick Okja. So while Parasite is effective as social commentary, that never loses sight of its message, it makes for an incredibly entertaining domestic thriller too. Central to the film is the Kims’ ever-tougher struggle to keep their cover. There are moments of almost unbearable tension and moral conflict, as their increasingly complicated circumstances demand on the spot thinking and making difficult decisions. The narrative gets under the skin and doesn’t let go. As the ante increases, I was impressed with how organically the plotting introduced new challenges for the hapless family. The script, which has been rightfully Oscar-nominated, is also very witty, and it’s rewarding to get to know the members of both four-person families so well. Hence we scheme, laugh, cry and rage alongside them at different times. Every emotional beat feels earned. On that point, it’s ironic that, in terms of attention and acclaim, it’s been upon the top 1% for the last year taking many of the most coveted awards and nominations. Personally I hope it leaves as few Oscars as possible for everything else.
Parasite is at cinemas now.