Act like you own the place.
Acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-ho — and this awards season he’s getting more and more acclaimed by the minute — really upsets the applecart with this sublime, subversive microcosm of class war and class war crimes. Parasite is a hell of a Rorschach test judging from some of the responses coming out of #filmtwitter, which makes it more interesting than the more partisan political parables that come down the pike.
And make no mistake, Parasite is political AF, slamming together two families from opposite ends of the wealth spectrum and letting us see how they rail, in their own ways, against the systemic evils that bind them. It’s a little Kubrickian in that way, except director Bong has way more affection for his characters than Stanley ever did, be they the dirt poor Kim family, living in a grotty basement apartment that regularly floods, or the affluent Parks, whose world is anchored by their sumptuous, ultra-modern hilltop mansion (director Bong had both sets custom built by production designer Ha-jun Lee for the film, and that precision and attention to detail pays off in smart and unexpected ways).
The two families intersect when teenage son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) finagles a gig as an English tutor to the Parks’ teenage daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ziso), bringing some much-needed cash into the family coffers. It also, inevitably, brings Ki-woo into the Park family nest, and he doesn’t take long to twig that, hey, this is a much better domestic situation than his own familial hovel. Soon the Kims are all working for the Parks: daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) is a kind of ‘art therapist’ to spoiled rotten younger son Park Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun), while Ki-woo’s father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is Park patriarch Dong-ik’s (Lee Sun-kyun) new chauffeur, and mother Park Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) is the new housekeeper (the Kims’ ruthless framing of the incumbent servants is audacious, brutal, horrifying, and hilarious in equal measure). It’s invasion by subversion, and when the Parks take off for a family camping holiday, the Kims live it up in their luxurious new surroundings.
But what’s the end game here?
That’s the essential tension that keeps the wheels spinning in Parasite: while it’s fun to laugh at how the clueless, entitled, and privileged Parks never seem to realize that the low-class, highly adaptable Kims are thoroughly and brilliantly rooking them, we know, if for no other reason than by dint of narrative expectation, and that the wheels are going to come flying off at some point or another, and probably because the Kims have pushed their luck too far. That’s the original sin of everyone involved when you boil it down to the basics: being oblivious to cost and consequence, whether in the broad societal sense (the Parks are almost completely enveloped in a bubble of protective and numbing wealth) or the specific instance of maybe not getting plastered on your boss’ liquor cabinet when you can’t be a hundred percent sure when they are coming home.
In effect, this means that our sympathies, if not our loyalties, are flipped, manipulated, and tested as the story develops and inevitably, turns dark. Yes, the Parks are ignorant snowflakes, but do they really deserve *waves hands vaguely* all that? And the Kims are well and truly hard done by, but does their straitened position really justify … all this? I suspect your answer is going to depend very much on where you yourself personally sit on the Great Totem Pole of Privilege and how squared away your sense of intersectionality is. Bong masterfully makes us complicit in what’s happening, and the long con being played, then forces us to confront ourselves over that complicity, then flips it again, and again … It’s heady, exhilarating, unpredictable stuff.
Of course, at the end of the day society’s to blame, to quote Repo Man (1984), and Bong’s remit is not to drag either family in favor of the other but to put the whole terrible capitalist machine up on the blocks and point out where it’s rusted out, and that he does so while navigating a series of increasingly tight narrative hairpin turns is well and truly deserving of the Citizen Kane applause gif.
Parasite has been most frequently filed under ‘black comedy’ by the usual pundits and perhaps that’s fair enough, but it’s so much more than that; in its bleak appreciation of the human zoo and the behavior of its inhabitants, it’s a very noirish slice of cinema, and the film cants further into that territory and away from comedy as it proceeds, abutting on horror along the way.
It’s hard to talk about how, or how effective it is (the answer is: very) without divulging some material that is better discovered on first viewing, but the way Bong nimbly blends genres is simply awe-inspiring; the frisson that Parasite elicits is genuinely unlike anything else that comes immediately to mind, and even distant stablemates — the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984)? John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994)? Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014)? — only invite comparisons that need to be appended with a ‘Yeah, but then …’, and then we’re out in the weeds floundering for something that makes some kind of sense. Imagine if Tony hated Angela on Who’s The Boss?, while Sam was an evil genius and Jonathan thought poor people should be hunted for sport, only Korean, and Oscar-worthy.
If you’ve been on the Bong Joon-ho train (Snowpiercer reference!) for a while, you’ve been hoping or expecting that at some point the world would sit up and take note of what he’s doing, and how it’s miles ahead of the Anglophone pack in terms of both sophistication and entertainment value. That’s a claim that can be leveled at the entire South Korean film scene, of which Bong is only the bleeding edge; while Hollywood is weighed down by increasingly sluggish franchises, Korea has snatched up the innovation baton and sprinted with it.
What that means for us and for this film, in particular, is that Parasite is not only one of the best films of the past 12 months, not just the best film of Bong’s career thus far, not only the most audacious flick to spin out of Asia in the past, oh, forever (a couple of years back Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden took the top slot and, as great as that one is, Parasite leaves it in the dust), and not merely richly deserving of each and every awards season gong being bodily hurled at it over the course of the summer — it’s a wakeup call that there is a whole world of brilliant cinema beyond the tentpoles, and if you’re willing to look for it and engage with it, you can get your mind blown like this on the reg. And honestly, why wouldn’t you?
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson