Film & TV Film Reviews Muse

Review: Parasite

Jasmine Onstad reviews the record-breaking Korean film Parasite and discusses its' powerful themes of class divide and wealth. SPOILERS AHEAD!

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Image Credit: StudioCanal

Director: Bong Joon Ho
Starring: Song Kang Ho, Lee Sun Kyun, Cho Yeo Jeong and Choi Woo Shik
Length: 2h 12m
Rating: 15

With 2019 serendipitously marking the 100th anniversary of Korean cinema, Bong Joon Ho being the first Korean director to win a Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, breaking records with every award show is the cherry on top of Parasite’s immense commercial and critical success. With the Oscars being just last night, the film has continued to sweep up accolades to become the first non-English language film to ever win Best Picture. Also winning Best Director, original screenplay and international feature, Parasite has become a picture of  record breaking success in international cinema that will inevitably go down in history.

The story, or allegory, is centred around two families: one rich, one poor; the Parks and the Kims. The poor family slowly infiltrate the lives of the rich family as service workers- starting with the son’s, Ki- Woo (Choi Woo Sik), appointment as a tutor to the rich teenage daughter (Jung Ziso). Eventually his sister (Park So Dam) becomes an art teacher to the Park’s troubled son (Hyun Jun Jung), his father (Song Kang Ho) their driver and his mother (Chang Hyae Jin) their housekeeper. The Kims are entranced by the glossy bourgeois lives of the Parks, but as their brilliant scheme spirals out of control, the ugly underbelly of this extreme wealth reveals itself. However, as this is a film best gone into blind, I would advise anyone who has not yet watched Parasite to stop reading now.

In his filmmaking, Bong blurs the lines between good and evil and revels in the grey area in between. The characters from both social spheres do horrible things to each other, their actions getting more and more out of hand as the story progresses. Even though the Kims are living a parasitic existence reliant on the Parks, it is difficult not to feel an affinity to them and sympathise with their situation. While they are caring to each other, part of their job as service workers is to perform emotional labour and adopt an artificial friendliness towards their employers. In contrast, this congeniality comes naturally to the Kims. As the mother Chung Sook puts it: "[Rich people] are nice because they are rich, if I were rich, I would be the even nicer!". But the Kims are not the only parasites here! As well as benefiting from a system of exploitation and oppression, the wealthy Kim's commit crimes in their own, more subtle, ways. The uncrossable line between the family and the help is constantly enforced by the rich father Dong Ik (Lee Sun Kyun) and his disdain for the mouldy ‘basement smell’ that emanates from his poor counterpart persistently undermines Ki Taek’s humanity. The class divide is shown to extend further than mere economic situation; it is portrayed in the rich person's nice genteel dementor, their fashionable effortlessness and their every crease being smoothed out (from the skin on their face to the tasteful concrete walls of their home).

Due to the movie being set nearly exclusively in the two family's houses, Bong first considered the possibility of making the Parasite a theatre production. However, that idea quickly dissipated as the director's cinematic imagination kicked in and he couldn't help visualising the camera shots that would bring this tale to life. The camera moves constantly throughout the film, directing the audience’s attention to unexpected details, such as the splatter of hot sauce on a pizza which will later be reflected in the blood on a piece of tissue.  Bong's love of Hitchcock seeps through the seams of every scene and he is a master of creating tension from the smallest change in pacing or imagery. A key turning point comes after the Kim family have successfully infiltrated the Park household and finally let their guard down. As the rain begins to fall, the audience know immediately that the family is in trouble and from this point onwards the tension only escalates. Culminating in a sequence which makes use of the Hitchcockian maxim that a murder in broad daylight is much more exciting than a murder under cover of darkness. From as early as the opening scenes, Bong creates a sense that something is not quite right, from the strange gift delivered by Ki Woo's friend Min, to the unsettling score. Yet despite all the tension, Parasite remains an enjoyable ride thanks to the injections of perfectly timed comedy.

Themes of class injustice and class divides pervade all of Bong’s films, from his very first feature Barking Dogs Never Bite, through to Snowpiercer and Okja. His messages deftly tread the line between subtlety and bluntly obvious. At the same time as being a very blatant metaphor about the trap of upward social mobility, Parasite manages to hold its cards close to its chest and keep the audience enticed but at a distance. The message of the film never feels heavy handed as expectations are constantly being toyed with. The film nimbly slides from genre to genre, like the smooth camera movements which guide the viewer through the story. This fluidity is probably reflective of Bong's lack of consideration for genre when writing his films. His primary interest is conveying reality, and so he rarely seeks to break film convention on purpose, it is merely a product of his unique and inventive vision.

As well as being fascinated with class tensions and the grotesqueness of wealth, hope is a concept that Bong visibly struggles with in his films. Hope is embedded within the architecture of Parasite, the tiny window at the top of the Kims’ semi-basement home lets in just enough light to tease the possibility of ascending from their dire situation. Hope for a better, more prosperous life is the noose which tightens around the necks of the poor- the closer they get to wealth, the more they realise that they will always be on the outside looking in. Hope for social progression keeps people within the oppressive system, as they believe that they will finally escape the dank basement of poverty and climb up the stairs to a light and breezy salvation. Just like the Park mansion, this dream is cruel and punishing in all its attractiveness. However, Parasite doesn't limit itself to a singular pessimistic point of view. Hope is also what brings the Kim family so close together and makes their tender relationships with each other possible. As a perfect counterpoint to the cynical Joker, Parasite does not shy away from darkness, but is lifted up by Bong's satisfyingly economic filmmaking, his mischievous sense of humour, and most of all his tentative belief in hope.

Editor's Note: This film was screened at City Screen York

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