Bong Joon-ho’s latest dark, socio-thriller Parasite combines class rage, deception and a scathing view of contemporary Korean society to create a masterpiece in unnerving storytelling, and a strong contender for one of the best films of the year.
The Kim family eek out an existence in a cramped semi-basement flat in a poor neighbourhood, finding menial work as a group and searching for new opportunities while bugs invade their home, and drunks urinate outside their grimy and flimsy windows. When Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the eldest son is offered work as a tutor to the teenage girl of the wealthy Park family, he takes the opportunity to intergrade their family into this new household. His sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) becomes “Jessica” a Chicago-educated art therapist, to help the Park family’s young son with his “genius” level art skills and unspoken trauma. This in turn allows Ki-jeong to engineer the firing of the Park’s existing household staff and so their father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) to become the new driver and their mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) to replace the loyal housekeeper, setting in motion a chain of chaotic events that brings their web of deception crashing down among them.
Parasite is not a comfortable watch, but it is an incredibly enjoyable one. The Kim family’s deception is based on a carefully thought-out plan but one that feels like the balance could tip at any moment. As Ki-woo, or Kevin as he is renamed by the Parks, Choi Woo-shik is the central figure of the film arguably leading the narrative in his attempt to better his family’s life. Choi moves between the two worlds with a sense of unease, desperate to find a place for himself in a social world that would reject his authentic self. He manages to be both affable and coldly manipulative, spotting weaknesses to exploit with ease but is still, somehow, likeable. The whole Kim family are simply trying to get by, and a necessity of success in this society is to be ruthless.
The lives of the Park and Kim family could not be more different, or extreme. The tiny basement is messy but there is a real sense of community, a familial love that is absent from the wealthier household. Ki-woo and the rest of the family sit around a dinner table that is too small for four adults, resulting in banged heads and continual claustrophobia. Bong Joon-ho continually contrasts this with the interiors of the architectural beauty of the Park house.
Built entirely from scratch for the film, the polished floors, grey concrete and muted, control wood tones of the house replace comfort and materialism, feeling more like an art instillation than a family home. It is within this odd, lush yet cold environment where status and perception is valued above all others. Park Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), the matriarch of the family, maintains this same distance with her own children – she is not comfortable inside the house, either maintaining it, or in the relationships she is expected to have with her children. They instead have tutors, or the housekeeper, as a replacement parental figures, while she hovers around the periphery, never in control.
Parasite is a masterpiece in suspense, in a situation that is not that far removed from reality. The tension between rich and poor, the clean, isolation of the Park’s world and the city that threatens to dissolve into disaster at any given moment builds to a third act in which all civility disappears out the window.
A true gem of cinema, Parasite demands to be seen.