With an oeuvre that includes acclaimed films like Memories of a Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja – Bong Joon-ho has undoubtedly established himself as one of the 21st century’s greatest auteurs. No longer an unknown indie quantity, these days, cinephiles greet every one of his new releases with fever-pitch anticipation. Adding to the hype, his latest project, Parasite, recently won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, making Bong Joon-ho the first Korean director to win the award in its illustrious history.
So does Parasite live up to lofty expectations? It most certainly does! Given the title, one could be forgiven for assuming that Bong Joon-ho is once again dabbling in science fiction. Instead, this film focuses on the parasitic relationship between two families on opposite ends of the pay scale. Part giddy heist comedy, and part nail-biting thriller – Parasite beautifully balances distinct tones to craft a masterful indictment of class inequity, callous greed, and economic anxiety.
We’re first introduced to a scrappy Seoul family living on the edge of poverty in a tiny, bug-infested sub-basement apartment. Unable to find stable employment, they live in cramped conditions (a toilet on a shelf tells you all you need to know), scoring faint Wi-Fi from neighbours and earning low wages folding boxes for a pizza delivery company. But the unit’s resourceful son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), has a plan when a friend asks him to take over as an English tutor for teenage student Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the daughter of a wealthy family.
Faking a university diploma and inventing a backstory, Ki-woo infiltrates Da-hye’s luxurious modernist home – ingratiating himself with her father, successful CEO Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and his “simple” wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong). The visual juxtaposition when we first meet Da-hye’s family is startling – with their house’s wood paneling and open spaces creating spatial contrasts between the poorer family’s slum quarters. Upon seeing how the other half lives, Ki-woo contrives to find more ways to swindle his family onto the Parks’ payroll.
Through a series of elaborate cons, his sister Ki-Jung (Park So-dam) lands a job as an arts counselor, his mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) as a housekeeper, and his father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) as a driver. At first, there’s a sense of diabolical fun in the justified scamming of gullible one-percenters. After all, the Parks are obscenely affluent, and they aren’t stealing so much as creating employment. But it isn’t a victimless crime because their deceptions have caused the Parks’ previous driver and housekeeper to be fired to make room for themselves.
Nevertheless, their charade goes according to plan for a blissful stretch. That is, until Ki-woo’s family discovers that they weren’t the first penurious unit to leech onto the prosperous Parks. This is where the film makes an about-face as delightful farce turns into something sinister and nerve-racking. Mixing tense terror with physical comedy, look out for wonderfully staged sequences where Ki-woo’s family are portrayed like scurrying cockroaches, hiding under furniture and in dark corners, even as torrential rains outside flood them with karma.
By satirizing both sides of the totem pole in this white-knucked and pitch-black tragicomedy, Bong Joon-ho is able to illustrate the pervasive psychology of money. From the repressed rage and desperation of the underprivileged willing to exchange financial bankruptcy for moral bankruptcy, to the obliviousness and skewed priorities of the bourgeoisie – Parasite shines a gripping light on human nature’s darkest instincts when class divisions become too disparate.