Synopsis – Set in Korea, a family of scammers living in poverty (the Kims) lie and cheat their way into working as the household staff of a wealthy family (the Parks), only for events to go off the rails. Very far off the rails.
1. By this point, the work of South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho transcends genre. Be it science fiction, murder mystery, or a monster movie, Bong reliably manages to twist and play with genre conventions to the point where a film is undoubtedly his, regardless of whatever generic sandbox he happens to be playing in at the moment. It helps that like the best auteurs, Bong has several unique signatures – his unerringly composed group shots, his fascination (some might say obsession) with dysfunctional family units, his stealthy long takes, his love for profile shots, and above all, his total mastery of tone, mashing up and shifting between the tragic and the comic throughout the length of a film, scene, or even shot. If pressed, I usually point to Bong as the one filmmaker I feel is ‘the best in the world’ at present – the director currently working at the highest peak of his powers. Parasite, Bong’s latest Palme d’Or winning effort, is no exception. It is a work suffused with genius in every frame, fuelled in equal parts by wicked black humour and a righteous fury towards the daily suffering faced by the underclass. To say it is spectacular is an understatement.
2. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – I love me a good bait-and-switch film, the kind that makes the unsuspecting audience member think it’s one thing before suddenly pivoting into something else altogether. Parasite is not a good bait-and-switch film. It is a fucking great bait-and-switch film, with a first hour that is light, breezy and fun, structured like a heist movie, complete with bouncy score and Ocean’s Eleven style scenes of people talking in voiceover about how they are going to do the thing while the film shows them doing the thing. At that point, it seems pretty clear. The titular parasites are the Kim family, leeching off the gullible generosity of the Park family through scheming and scamming. This is when things get complicated, and Parasite reveals itself to be something much more than your average grifter film – a searing, bone-deep satire of a hopelessly unequal and unfair society, where those at the bottom are forced to debase themselves for the entertainment at those at the top just for the sake of survival, while calling into question just who exactly the parasites really are. And yes, to reference another masterpiece – there will be blood.
3. And yet, one might easily expect Parasite to be a minor note in Bong’s canon, coming as it does after his big international productions Snowpiercer (2013)and Okja (2017). However, much like how he followed up record-breaking smash The Host (2006) with his substantially smaller-scale magnum opus Mother (2009), the comparative cosiness of Parasite (in conjunction with the fact that it is set in Korea) allows for Bong to sharpen the themes and motifs that were in evidence in Snowpiercer and Okja. Ideas that felt overly scattered and diffuse amidst the bulk of the previous two films are honed to scalpel-blade sharpness in Parasite. Take, for instance, the theme of inequality. While Snowpiercer went for a grand societal allegory and Okja jetted around the world to portray global inequity, Parasite goes for the more intimate approach of juxtaposing two families – one filthy rich, one living in squalor – allowing for a richer development of the idea through its greater focus.
4. This focus is aided by Bong’s supreme eye for architectural detail. The image of stairs aptly recurs throughout the film, with the numerous shots of characters ascending and descending serving as a visual metaphor* for their rise and fall through the class pyramid. Parasite is also one of the best examples of how a film can tell a story through settings and spaces. Aside from the aforementioned stair imagery, the film calls to attention the very different living spaces of the two families. The Parks live in a mansion perched on a hill, with wide French windows overlooking a sunbeam-dappled lawn. The Kims live in a sub-basement, with the only window facing a street where drunkards stop to piss. The cramped, claustrophobic living room where the Kims gather is shot in tight, static frames, compared to the tracking shots that reveal the spacious, wide-open corridors of the Park home. Above all, my favourite spatial comparison is in the bathrooms of both houses, expertly illuminated through two superb contrasting shots of youngest Kim daughter Ki-jeong – luxuriantly recumbent in a bathtub in one, pathetically smoking on a flooded toilet in the other.
5. The acting, as it always is in a Bong picture, is uniformly superb. Song Kang-ho, so great as the hangdog, pathetic protagonists in previous Bong films Memories of Murder and The Host, returns as patriarch of the Kim family. Interestingly, Song plays against type, burying his usual rubber-faced emotiveness beneath several layers of worn out stoicism. His counterpart, Lee Sun-kyun gives an equally fantastic performance as Mr. Park, managing to create a truly loathsome character with very little, without ever resorting to cheap villainy. Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam, playing the Kim children, give performances of real energy, verve, and pathos as well, selling both the ‘fun heist times’ of the first half and the more weighty dramatic meat of the second half. MVP, however, goes to Cho Yeo-jeong as Mrs Park, who skates perfectly down the line of parody and realism in her portrayal of a flighty, none-too-bright trophy wife whose guilelessness about the world around her is first portrayed as sweet innocence before morphing into monstrous neglect.
6. There is just so much in Parasite to dissect, and I will probably never be able to do Bong’s incisive satirical wit true justice. As such, this paragraph is just a list of moments that have stuck with me hours after I have left the cinema. The shot of a dog eating bacon from a skewer (it makes sense in context). The one character who represents a brutal takedown of the slavish cult of personality over billionaire capitalists like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. The way Bong wrings unbearable tension in a bravura set-piece using only a table and a doorway. The seemingly minor character of the youngest Park child, who is subtly hinted at being traumatised and neglected. The cheeky genius of subverting the gory discretion shot. The vice-like tightness of the screenplay, which does not waste a single detail or symbolic object. A series of shots that ingeniously uses telephone conversations to cross-cut between the disparate worlds of high and low. The ending, which offers a promise of hope before dousing the viewer with cold reality.
7. However, all the craftsmanship and technical expertise in the world accounts for very little if a movie lacks thematic coherence, which remains the greatest strength of Parasite. This film has more than a few similarities to Jordan Peele’s Us, with its motif of a repressed underclass literally emerging from underground to shed blood all over the perfect domesticity of an insulated privileged bubble. However, while the former movie felt muddled at points in its message, the latter film knows precisely what it wants to say and how it wants to say it. There has always been the shade of the revolutionary about Bong, as seen in his unceasing critique of oppressive power structures and his obvious sympathy for those in the bottom rung of said structures. More than any film of his (yes, even Snowpiercer), Parasite crystallises these concerns into a single searing point. Time and time again, it is emphasised just how nice the Parks are – and indeed they are (to an extent), because this is not that kind of movie where one single rich person is to blame for all the bad things in life. No, this is the kind of movie that rumbles with cold fury against the system that enables this sort of inequality in the first place, a system that pits poor against poor in a life-or-death struggle while the rich remain (and are allowed to remain) oblivious, until the moment where it is too late for everyone involved. This is a film where people die fighting over literal table scraps and where the best thing a rich person can say about a poor person is that they know ‘not to cross the line’. This is a film that is beautifully constructed with the formal expertise of a great filmmaker and tells an urgent message with the eloquence of a great artist. This is an incredible work of art, and one that will stick in the memory for a long time, like a splash of blood on a pristine white tablecloth.