The word “parasite” is never uttered in Bong Joon-Ho’s titular Parasite, yet it’s a perfect description of the film’s central family. They’re short on the money or economic opportunity to rise beyond lower-class status and must leech off the wealthier instead. Not out of malice, but simply because it’s a necessary con for survival. This balance between cons and social satire dominate Parasite, the unilateral Golden Palm winner of 2019’s Cannes Film Festival and by far the year’s best film. It’s a bold, biting entry so full of insane twists and clever filmmaking moments that you need to go in blind. There are things in this movie that simply made me scream “WTF” internally and love it even more for being that ballsy.
Parasite is slightly more grounded than Joon-Ho’s previous mainstream entries Okja and Snowpiercer, but still pretty insane. Like those films, it offers a critique of class inequality dominating conventional society where lower class individuals, often without options, must take drastic risks to survive. And the Kim family has nothing but risks. A family of four living in a dinky slum house in Seoul, they consist of patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). The family loves each other but their income is miniscule, barely making minimum wage folding pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant and receiving extra through various scams. They can’t even afford wi-fi, so the best alternative is using the neighboring store’s signal. It’s strongest near the toilet, which might be a metaphor for the Kim’s life.
Then opportunity strikes at temporarily living like royalty. Ki-woo is asked by his friend Min to tutor an upper-class girl named Da-hye (Cho Yeo-jeong), whose family resides in a gorgeous Lloyd Wright piece of architecture. It’s also surrounded by a marble wall, metaphorically and literally cutting the Park family off from the rest of South Korea’s socio-economic concerns. Posing as “Kevin” with a falsified university degree, Ki-woo impresses the Parks while using their oblivious dependence on servants to begin a drastically elaborate con. If the Kims can’t beat their economic system, they might as well borrow from those already at the top.
One by one, each family member worms their way into the life of a Park member to make their lives more convenient. Ki-jung becomes “Jessica,” a transfer art student who helps Mrs. Park’s son Da-song overcome some childhood trauma through his drawings. Ki-taek becomes “Mr. Kim,” a veteran driver who takes over the role of Mr. Park’s (Lee Sun-Kyun) chauffer after he’s accused of misconduct. And Chung-sook just so happens to be available after the former housemaid is let go for… reasons. None of these decisions are questioned or challenged. The Parks are simply happy to have new blood take over their household duties, and the Kims need a bit extra. Everyone wins this way, so who cares if a few fibs were needed to sign the paychecks.
This is as far as I’ll go into the plot. Much of Parasite’s second act revolves around some shocking reveals that throw a monkey wrench into the Kim’s plans, further exposing the system they’re working against. They covet the Park’s house. Why? Because, much like the Gondo residence in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, it symbolizes wealth itself. The house is a beacon of bourgeois prosperity, providing all the luxury a family could desire while being so detached from the outside world that they fail to consider everyone else’s problems. At one point, a character comments on the rain ruining their family gathering, only to then gush about the next extravagant event they have planned. Meanwhile, we’ve just watched the destructive impact that rain had on lower-class residents, so their comments come across as incredibly callous. Not malevolent, but woefully oblivious of their place atop the social hierarchy.
Like High and Low, topography is central to Parasite’s narrative. Bong Joon-Ho constantly shows the Kims descending throughout Parasite, both in a house practically merged with the ground and a scheme that threatens to unravel with one wrong move. By contrast, the Parks are constantly moving up in a house walled off and high above nature itself, ironically while looking down on those who don’t match their standards. As long as the Help doesn’t “cross a line”- a line you’ll hear many times- they’re worth keeping for the household’s sake. It creates an ecosystem where the lower class must constantly fight one another for the rich’s spoils while the latter profits off everyone’s exploitation. So long as buildings like the Park house exist, the system will always be populated by an endless cycle of unnoticed residents and servants. You’ll understand.
Still, this is a darkly funny movie, perhaps unintentionally so. A lot of the humor comes from juxtaposing the Kim’s interactions and long-term planning against the Park’s obliviousness. One of my favorite scenes involves watching Ki-taek fabricate some reason for replacing the maid, only to cut to him reading the scripted scenario with his family. They’re playing characters attuned to the wealthy’s special interests but make sure everyone’s act never feels too overtly melodramatic. Consider it socio-economic camaraderie for the lols.
With Joon-ho’s direction and Hong Kyung-pyo’s masterful cinematography, Parasite is a variety of things: disturbing, humorous, cynical and tense. The fact that it weaves through all these genre tones with ease is a testament to the film’s brilliance. The second act alone provides some of the most suspenseful moments I’ve seen in a film all year, keeping you on edge with a Hitchcockian setup where certain characters get… extremely close. Yet this tension isn’t just physical but emotional, pitting the working class vs. upper-class lifestyles on a collision course that gets bloody. But the payoff is remarkably satisfying.
Like most films with critical economic messages, characters desire something better than what they have now. The question is whether they can afford it in a world where reaching that goal means sacrificing others for the sake of a plan that, by the nature of planning, will never go according to plan. Yet we empathize with the Kim’s pursuit of something better, even if their leeching methods are flat-out antihero territory. The more absurdist their plight becomes, the more we’re forced to grapple with the film’s darker undertones until one final, hopeful moment of ascendance.
Verdict: 5 out of 5 Stars
I can definitely see why Cannes awarded Parasite its highest award. This movie is a biting indictment of inequality on top of being a well-made, well-shot, well-acted film. And it makes all these insane twists and themes look effortless, always the mark of a talented director. I hope it gets nominated for Best Picture, because a film this good shouldn’t have to settle for the sidelines of Best International Feature Film.