Brilliant South Korean writer and director Bong Joon-Ho has established a fairly solid reputation with unusual, well made features with a message, such as Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017), but with his latest film he has made a significant, even startling breakthrough that has earned well deserved praise and international awards, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Parasite is remarkable partly because it is so strikingly original; it doesn’t remind the viewer of any other film or category and doesn’t seem to mimic or borrow from anything else. It is difficult even to classify; Bong has referred to it as a tragi-comedy, but it does not fit easily into any particular genre, defying categorisation and evading film conventions as easily as its storyline continually defies expectations. What’s more, while Parasite is a slightly challenging film, it avoids becoming a clever but inaccessible work of art; it is one of the most engrossing and watchable films of the year.
The film’s central theme and source of conflict is wealth and poverty, the continual, usually unacknowledged, competition between rich and poor, the struggle by the indigent for both resources and human dignity. Bong commented in a statement coinciding with the release of Parasite, “It is increasingly the case in this sad world that human relationships based on co-existence or symbiosis cannot hold, and one group is pushed into a parasitic relationship with another. In the midst of such a world, who can point their finger at a struggling family, locked in a fight for survival, and call them parasites?” The film avoids either condemning or vindicating its characters, regardless of their sometimes questionable behaviour, and never falls into an easy division of heroes and villains. In fact, director Bong has stated in an interview that he intends none of the characters to be malevolent; it is mainly the clash of social classes that is the cause of the trouble. All the characters are flawed, each in his own way as his circumstances dictate, but none of them qualifies as a villain.
The four central characters are the members of the Kim family, a middle-aged couple and their young adult son and daughter. The Kims’ poverty is both sad and ludicrous: the four live together in a tiny basement apartment; their only income is earned by assembling cardboard pizza boxes. They have learned to scavenge where possible, bringing home discarded but usable items; an early scene shows them accessing a neighbour’s wifi by standing on the toilet and holding a phone up to the ceiling, the only spot where a signal is available. A rather disturbing scene has Mr Kim (Song Kang-Ho), observing exterminators spraying insecticide outside their building, keep the windows open to expose their apartment to the fumes, free of charge but exposing the family to poison. Mrs Kim (Jang Hye-Jin) is the family’s staunch emotional support, but is falling into pessimism after years of defeat. They are a close family and have retained some hope of better things, as demonstrated by their long list of failed money-making ventures. Their circumstances change when son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-Sik) is offered a job tutoring the daughter of the affluent Park family. It is a rare opportunity, and the Kims intend to make the most of it.
The Park home, in an affluent neighbourhood, is an extreme contrast to the Kims’ apartment and surroundings: it is a splendid, spacious, modern house noted to be designed by a famous architect (in fact, it is a set design made to Bong’s specifications), surrounded by well-kept lawns, and cut off from the world by a screen of trees and hedges. Its serene, orderly atmosphere is even more at odds with the Kims’ squalid, cluttered home and wretched streets. The Parks clearly belong here: Mr Park (Lee Sun-Kyun) is a wealthy, workaholic CEO; his wife (Jo Yeo-Jeong), an unworldly, pampered woman whose life revolved around her home and her children. The costume designer Choi Se-Yeon, who has worked with Bong on several features) noted that, unlike most films, in which costumes are chosen to “make the character stand out from their setting,” the characters are made to match and blend into their surroundings, so that their environment defines them to some extent. So it is that the Parks seem to be an extension of their beautiful house, and their house an extension of themselves. Ki-Woo is carefully polite and conscientious in his tutoring position, quickly gaining his employers’ trust. At the first opportunity, he hints that the Parks’ spirited young son would benefit from art therapy, and recommends a noted expert in the field – an invented person who will be impersonated by Ki-Woo’s elder sister, Ki-Jung (Park So-Dam). By a series of tricks and stratagems, the Kim family manage to get all four Kims positions in the Park household under forged professional records. Some of their methods ingeniously but rather callously displace the previous servants, a fact that will come back to disrupt the Kims’ plan, and ultimately lead to calamity.
The interaction between the Kim family and their wealthy employers is both funny and believable, carefully and subtly crafted to express the uncomfortable realities of class distinction. The cast was carefully chosen, many of them known to the director from past films, to allow for a successful ensemble performance with proper attention to the smallest details of the characters’ complicated relationships – to “form an effective ensemble…like a football team” as Bong explained. The Kims easily adapt their behaviour to their assumed role, and their cautious balance of familiarity and deference, the contrived acceptance of household servants as the Parks’ equals always carefully diluted with an attitude of subservience, is precise and amusingly on target. The Parks consider themselves fair employers and unpretentious, egalitarian people, and remain unaware of their elitist assumptions, or of the painstaking efforts their servants must make to bolster this self-image, without ever committing what Mr Park deplores as “crossing the line.” Director Bong noted in an interview that “in today’s capitalistic society there are ranks and castes that are invisible to the eye” but which nevertheless involved “class lines that cannot be crossed.” Through the director’s skill, these subtle barriers are made jarringly visible to the audience.
The second half of the film is full of unexpected twists, keeping the story unpredictable almost until the final moment. The Kim family begin to encounter complications in their pretence, and have to struggle to keep their secret intact and maintain their position in the household. Their efforts allow the concept of a parasite to emerge more clearly and in many forms. Bong has remarked on the satirical use of the word parasite in the title. He appreciated the immediate suggestion of a horror film, attached to what he considers a fairly realistic story. The title also refers to people who, unable to live in a normal, co-existent relationship with others, are forced into a parasitic relationship, an idea that appears in more than one metaphorical sense.
The film becomes more intense and shifts from comedy to tragedy in the shocking and unexpected final act, when the doomed co-existence of rich and poor characters comes to a head, ending in an extreme and strangely appropriate form of disaster. With Parasite, Bong Joon-Ho has produced a brilliant social commentary, and what might well be the best film of 2019.