I fell in love with the genre-hopping, tonally-tromboning work of South Korean firebrand Bong Joon-ho at university and ended up writing my dissertation on how his films represent fractured families and Korean culture. I’ve been waiting for PARASITE for what seems like an age and I’m ecstatic to report it pretty much bowled me over.
The Kims, a family of grifters manipulate their way into working for the affluent Park family and cling to the higher quality of life this brings them. But how far will the deception go, who is in control and what secrets are both families hiding?
Bong loves his dysfunctional family units, and here we get two for the price of one. The Kims are scroungers of everything from wireless signals (how they are introduced to us) to food and easy payouts (making up pizza boxes: “One out of four is defective”, prompting Ki-taek to glance accusingly at his three family members). But they always have each other’s backs and a plan to get rich without trying. The Parks are privileged, pretentious and protected against the harder parts of life, but they still love each other (“Let’s call it love”) are kind to those that grow close to them and can be trusting to a fault.
What the Kims have over their marks are their wiles. They’re calculating, street-smart and able to improvise should the plan go awry, which it inevitably will sooner or later. They may live in a basement where the only phone signal is from the elevated toilet and their only regular caller is a drunk who sees their window as a toilet, but they’re survivors and are doing OK considering the two traditional breadwinners find themselves out of work.
The stage is set – two families, polar opposites of one another share the same life for a time and through manipulation and deception try to retain the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to. It’s all about control – who thinks they’re in control, who knows they’re actually in control and who really is in control? This is a dark and twisty tale that will feature peaches, soap and faulty lighting as plot points.
The players – some big names in Korea and talented performers – should have received more individual recognition on the awards circuit. Song Kang-ho is one of the most versatile leading men in international film – charismatic, nuanced and frequently hilarious, he’d walk away with the film with a less talented ensemble, but Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin and Lee Sun-kyun all get their moments to dazzle.
The pacing is generally measured and the build of tension steady, but after a couple of almighty twists and rug-pulls the final act really kicks into high gear. It’s here especially that Bong brings some real class-based fury at inequality to proceedings. For a while you think the Kims will be punished for their wrongdoing, that the film is holding them up as a moral example but even then Bong keeps asking pertinent questions and keeps any easy answer out of reach. But no-one gets off lightly here – no level of manipulation or power-play is left out of the debate – the Kims and the Parks may have their reasons for being who they are and doing what they do, but it all comes back to a fundamentally broken society one way or another.
All of Bong’s films are funny, but a combination of slapstick, situational bizarreness and pretty grotesque imagery (the sight of an overflowing toilet hasn’t been used to such comic effect since TRAINSPOTTING) makes this the closest thing he’s made to an outright comedy, as dark as it gets in the final act.
It’s a great-looking film, classically framed and capturing whole family units in wide or medium shot. Contrasting lighting and hues juxtapose the two worlds of this story – a hellish literal underworld of the lower classes and a pristine, heavenly upper level – works really well for the story’s thematic substance.
Black as pitch, but hilarious, socio-politically cutting but with a heart and conscience. I’ve seldom laughed so much at a film this year, even though I felt a little bit bad about some of those chuckles. Director Bong has now made films called THE HOST and Parasite, both hugely entertaining societal satires with a good glug of genre influences from elsewhere. What could be next? Symbiote? Whatever it is will surely be another deliriously entertaining eye-opener and inescapably “him”. SSP