Film Review – Parasite
Bong Joon Ho’s Korean film, Parasite (2019) is a stunning achievement. It’s a work that is as keenly prescient as it is superbly crafted. One of the joys of watching a great movie is not having a clue where it is going. As Bong Joon Ho (who directs and cowrites with Han Jin Won) guides us through his story, we start to get a notion of what is about to come only to be taken on a completely different turn. In the end, we stand back to observe the whole picture and realize that we were in the hands of a master at the height of his powers. There are very few films you’ll see this year that is as sharp, focused, and as absorbing as this. As soon as I was done watching it, I wanted to see it again.
We start off with the Kim family, with father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park), and son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi). All four members are unemployed, living in a shabby basement apartment. Their window looks out to a dirty back alley, with drunkards frequenting their doorstep to relieve themselves. Things are difficult for the Kims, until one day Ki-woo – at the urging of a classmate – gets a job as an English tutor to Da-hye (Ji-so Jung) the daughter of the wealthy Park family, which includes mother Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), father Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), and young son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung).
This serves as a good opportunity for the Kim family to make some money, except for the fact that Ki-woo does not have formal training as a tutor or in English. No matter. Forging recommendation letters and credentials, Ki-woo fakes his way into the Park’s good graces, visiting them in their gorgeous, modern home high above the city. When Ki-woo learns that the family needs help in other positions – an art tutor, a driver, a housemaid, etc. – he and the rest of the Kim family devise a scheme for each of them to maneuver themselves onto the Park’s payroll.
Seeing the Kim’s worm into the Park’s home would be enough to make a satisfying plot, but Bong Joon Ho has so much more up his sleeve. There is a growing tension that develops between these people, and how the differences in their economic standing shapes their perspectives of one another. The more the Parks and Kims learn of each other, the more anxious we become that something dreadful is looming. Bong Joon Ho (along with cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong) lays down a heavy visual style that emphasizes the metaphor. In one of the best sequences, the Kims make their way from the Parks’ estate, walking down hills and roads and stairways to their apartment, highlighting the visual separation between the “upper” class and the “lower” class. And yet in another pivotal moment, Mrs. Park mentions how a rainstorm “washed” away the dirt and grime, ignorant to the fact that it posed as a danger to those that live at the bottom of the city.
But the theme of class isn’t examined in black and white terms. The narrative does an excellent job of wading through the grey areas, where one side often has to depend on the other. The Kims live in a position of power and privilege but are unable to fare for themselves. They need people to cook for them, drive them around, clean up after them, and help educate their children, and so they have to hire help. On the flip side, those of poor economic standing must endure working for people who may not respect them. Because they are given money (sometimes even food and shelter), they must clench their teeth and perform tasks they would rather not do at all, even if it means competing with others to do so. It’s a balancing act based out of financial desperation, and Bong Joon Ho accurately shows how unsteady that balance is. One wrong word or action could make the entire house of cards come tumbling down.
Like the best of Stanley Kubrick, Bong Joon Ho does an excellent job of establishing a menacing tone. Much of that is due to the construction of the Parks’ home. Described as being designed by a world-renowned architect, the house is all glass and hardwood floors, with straight lines and sharp corners everywhere you look. Lights turn on, following characters as they walk around different locations. The back wall is ceiling to floor glass paneling, opening up to a lush backyard and garden. The production design and art direction give the house a beautiful, yet cold atmosphere. It doesn’t feel like it has been lived in – as though the furnishings came out of a magazine. Looking at it, you’d never guess what sort of people lived there. This works as an advantage to the narrative – a magnificent façade masking darker secrets within.
Bong Joon Ho establishes so many different cinematic layers that it would take an entire article just to go through them all. Even the title – Parasite – acts as a fascinating piece of symbolism. Are the Kims the parasites, manipulating their employer to milk them out of all of their money? Or are the Parks the parasites, feeding off the lower classes to live in comfort and convenience? It’s a question that may vary depending on who’s answering it. The fact that Bon Joon Ho has the insight and intelligence to ask the question is what makes this great cinema.