Bong Joon-ho’s dark satire exposes Korea’s class divide and serves up a peerless cinematic masterpiece
Film has long grappled with the societal truth that the rich and the wretched must connect to keep the cogs turning on our lives.
The master-servant dynamic has loomed large in Korean cinema since Kim Ki-young’s classic The Housemaid (1960), remade in 2010 by Im Sang-soo. Parasite takes that theme and spirals into the type of awe-inducing imagery and jaw-dropping twists that leaves an audience changed in ways they cannot retrieve.
Parasite is the perfect storm of a film. Superbly directed by a filmmaker at the peak of their powers, wonderfully acted by an ensemble cast, beautifully shot in swanky rich houses, poor “semi-basements” and sweeping city pans, while providing a punch of social commentary that leaves every audience member licking their wounds for weeks.
It tells the story of two families at opposite ends of the capitalist spectrum. The Kim family of mother Chung-sook (Lee Jung-eun), father Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho), daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) dwell under the city street level in their dank semi-basement home. We see them desperately trying to steal wi-fi connections, allowing fumigation sprays to flood their basement home to kill bugs, and landing paltry pay folding pizza boxes for a local restaurant.
When an opportunity for Ki-woo arises to tutor a local rich girl, we meet the Park family, starting with the beautiful, if naive and highly-strung, mother Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) and her daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so).
Ki-woo’s forged documents and direct teaching style land him the role tutoring Da-hye. His foot in the door allows the remaining Kim family to bundle through to gradually occupy various roles working for the affluent Parks.
Ki-woo wrangles an art therapy role with Park’s hyperactive Da-song (Jeong Hyun-joon) for Ki-jeong, who in turns gets Ki-taek the driving gig for the Park father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), before he ensures Chung-sook becomes the new housemaid.
Roles all grasped through deception and maintained by acting as strangers to each other. The Kims are together, a family unit living in plain sight to the gullible Parks.
With the Park family on a camping trip, the Kim clan drink and laugh at their upturn in fortunes. Then the doorbell rings. Then the spiral begins. But that’s a spiral best discovered on screen.
Significant mention must go to Parasite’s storm scene. As Yeon-kyo bemoans the cutting-short of their camping trip, the Park family wade through chest high flood waters to retrieve their belongings from their submerged basement home.
The following day the Kim family scramble for second-hand clothing in a gym packed with flood survivors while Yeon-kyo saunters through her colossal walk-in wardrobe to pick a designer outfit for an impromptu birthday party for Da-song.
Bong is as genre-fluid as ever in crafting Parasite. The comedic first act gives way to a gut-wrenching middle and ending. Bong evokes horror devices throughout. Faces of shock, screeching violin scores, and even an illustrated face rising from the basement in an image that would chill most horror fans.
Composer Jung Jae-il provides a score that lifts the early comedy, accelerates the dramatic tension of the latter stages, and even hints at what lies beneath of the characters as the story unfolds. Bouncing piano tunes perfectly fit the playful exchanges, before melancholy ballads and spine-tingling violin match the chaotic developments as they unfold.
The film’s title seems to pitch the Park family as the parasites to the Kim luxury mansion, but the word takes on new meanings as the story unfolds. Or perhaps simply capitalism makes parasites of us all?
Another meaning is the film’s impact on its audience. This film will follow you around, infect you, leave you wondering what you have caught from it.
Bong has created one of the most powerful pieces of Korean cinema ever and it is likely to take hold of audiences around the world for generations.