What is left to say about one of the best-reviewed and most widely discussed films in recent years except that Parasite is worth the hype?
South Korean wunderkind Bong Joon-ho’s seventh feature is also among the most illegally downloaded titles of late, but its pleasures and achievements are best appreciated on the big screen. Here, the scale and architecture of the narrative conceit, the stakes involved in the act of deceit that drives events, and the staggering inequality that make the movie both specific to the director’s country of origin as well as universal, come worryingly alive.
Broad comedy, sharp satire, angry critique and heart-tugging poignancy are packed into 132 minutes. In a crummy basement apartment in the depths of a South Korean city, the hard-up Kim family plots its version of insurrection. The target: the Parks, who are the obverse of the Kims in every way imaginable.
First, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) passes himself off as a university graduate and gets a job tutoring the daughter of the ultra-wealthy Parks. Ki-woo’s sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), and mother Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) follow, as art therapist, driver and housekeeper respectively. The Kims pretend that they are unrelated to each other. The Parks, relieved that their magnificent mansion with its luxe furniture, staggering wall-to-wall bar, neatly manicured lawn and amply stocked food cellar, is in perfect order and their children are cared for, do not notice.
Satire is in full flow as the Kims charm the Park couple (played by Cho Yeo-jeong and Lee Sun-kyun) all too easily and play on their desire to be seen as munificent millionaires. Just when it appears the Kims have mastered the dance between guile and gullibility, Bong introduces a sudden mood switch (typical of his films). The Kims’ game unravels, taking this battle from the trenches to the ground and then into unforeseen places.
The conflict between the upstairs and the downstairs, explored in movies as varied as Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) and Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), is imprinted on Ha Jun-Lee’s meticulous production design and the up, down and sideways movements of the characters. The Rules of the Game uses a hunt as the backdrop for the tensions between an elite land-owning family and its minor army of servants. In High and Low, an affluent businessman who lives in a sprawling house atop a hill that overlooks slums is sought to be brought down to earth by a kidnapper. Parasite acknowledges its debt to Kurosawa’s masterpiece through a visual motif that involves the act of looking from the margins into the core of affluence that is available only to a few.
The layers that define and separate the families are equally embedded into the lustrous cinematography by Hong Kyung-po, who also lensed the other great recent South Korean film, Burning, in 2018. Hong creates contrasting tones for the warm-toned and cluttered Kim apartment and the glittering and capacious Park residence. Actually an eye-popping set, the Park abode screams both “aspiration” and “one percent”, and its cavernous spaces and cold lighting are designed to both awe and shame.
There are moments when Parasite resembles a stationary, dollhouse version of Bong’s English-language Snowpiercer (2013), in which the tail section of a train carrying the last survivors of a failed scientific experiment attempts to forge to the front, where there is warmth and food. Bong’s international breakthrough was the creature feature The Host (2005), about military adventurism and environmental destruction. Apart from the symbiotic relationship between their titles, The Host and Parasite share Bong’s faith in the only institution that matters in a world rendered mad by the power elite – the family.
The Kims, who cohere as naturally as any real-life unit, sometimes appear to be as glib as the times they seek to reshape. They might be pathological in their social climbing, ruthless in their attitude towards the Parks and comical in their fumbling. And yet, they are soldered together by love and are always all-too human, the natural consequence of an economic order that privileges few and shuts out the rest.
Superbly performed by the entire cast, which includes Bong regular Kang-ho Song, Parasite pushes its devilishly clever take on inequity to the limits. The screenplay reveals all its surprises and leaves no layer or level of meaning unexplored or unexposed, but the conceit holds throughout, except for a couple of scenes that lack smoothness and subtlety. The only mystery that remains intact is contained by the title: who is feeding off whom?