Synopsis – All unemployed, Ki-taek and his family take peculiar interest in the wealthy and glamorous Parks, as they ingratiate themselves into their lives and get entangled in an unexpected incident.
My Take – Despite the language barrier, I have been in awe of South Korean films for some time now, mainly of the thriller genre, and one of the early films which got me hooked on their cinema was Memories of Murder (2003), a small-town police procedural co-written and directed by Bong Joon-ho.
Highly impressed by his quality of work, since then I have followed each of his new release, be it 2006’s monster film, The Host, the 2009 serial killer thriller, Mother, the 2013 dystopian sci-fi adventure, Snowpiercer, and the animal rights driven 2017 Netflix follow up, Okja. Films which have no doubt put Korean cinema on the map for international audiences.
Hence, there was no doubt in mind, that his next release would also be of some unique quality, mainly as director Bong Joon-ho doesn’t make what you’d call genre films, even if his past films have included such apparently familiar modes of cinematic expression. Rather, what sets him apart from his peers is that of his films’ perplexing ability to morph smoothly, within one film and sometimes one scene, from one recognizable cinematic style to another, shedding genres along the way.
Factors which are heavily evident in his latest, which is also possibly his best film yet. Beginning as incisive look at class divisions with an unpredictable plot, by the end of its run time, the film will have cycled through black comedy, social satire, suspense, slapstick and to some extend horror.
The film also functions as a savage commentary on economic inequality and the violence inflicted by capitalism, but approaches these themes with such sly wit that it never feels like an issue driven film.
Following its Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival 2019, director Bong Joon-Ho‘s film has continued to win acclaim all over, winning numerous awards, and has also managed to rake in six Oscar nominations for the ceremony next month, including Best Picture, confirming the film is the definition of a must-see experience.
Set in modern day South Korea, the story follows the Kim Family, which consists of Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), his son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and his daughter Kim Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), who live in glum poverty in a cockroach-ridden basement flat, that’s half below-ground. In order to make ends meet, they fold pizza boxes to earn little cash and run around the apartment chasing WiFi signals from the coffee shop next door.
With their future prospects looking seemingly bleak, as the both young lings never went to college, an opportunity arises when Ki-Woo’s college going friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), offers him to take over his job as an English tutor to the girl he loves, Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the teenage daughter of a super-rich tech entrepreneur Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun), mainly because he feels she’ll be safe with him.
While Ki-Woo is immediately approved for the job by Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong), Dong-ik’s neurotic and gullible wife, upon visiting the opulent modernist house, he realizes that the household also has ample job opportunities for the rest of his family members too. With shrewd strategy, soon his sister is an art tutor to Da-hye’s younger brother, his father a chauffeur to the family, and his mother the housekeeper, all without the Parks quite realizing they’ve hired an entire family. Everyone seems happy, that is until it all goes sideways.
With secrets both families have been hiding, plus other secrets previously unknown to them both, threaten to come to light in a cataclysm of long-deferred and thrillingly orchestrated violence.
Essentially a twist-laden black comedy in home invasion mode, with a rich streak of scabrous social satire, the film is a malign delight from start to finish thanks to its entertaining premise that will leave you hooting with laughter before the other shoe drops, and then you see what the film is really about. The tonal shifts are thrilling and feel entirely natural, thanks to the masterful direction and fantastic performances from an ensemble cast.
The first hour of the film has the forward-barreling energy of a delirious heist comedy as the Kims work together to engineer their takeover of the wealthy family’s home and fortune. After a wild party scene at the midway point, while the Parks are away on a camping trip, the Kims gather in their living room to drink their liquor and raid their well-stocked fridge, a shocking twist places both families in a different light and forces the Kims to confront an entirely new set of practical and ethical problems.
Director Bong’s films are always hilarious and farcical, almost slapstick and then violent. There are no real heroes but few true villains; people do ignoble things to one another but you kind of get the reason why. Everyone in a Bong Joon-ho film is, at least to some degree, the victim of his or her circumstances. They’re cogs in a much, much larger machine or to put it another way, just creatures living in an ecosystem they cannot possibly control.
Here too, almost no character is endearing or redeeming. In fact, most are despicable. Beginning with Ki-woo, who’s only too ready to steal his friend’s beloved, through to Da-hye’s spoilt kid brother Da-song (Jung Hyeon Jun), whose obsession with Native Americans is wildly indulged by his parents, specially imported tomahawks and all. While this would normally make it hard for audiences to connect within any other film, it works here. You may not sympathize with anyone, but you are invested in all characters and each plot point.
The film also perfectly presents the subject of classism, showing us how both the working class and the upper class view each other and the people around them. Here, director Bong draws on the upstairs-downstairs construct, in which the literal levels of a house demarcate the differences between the wealthy and those who serve them. However, the film don’t fall into stereotypes of haves and have-nots, either.
This is not a film about how rich people are actually miserable. Whether it’s because of their surroundings or just a coincidence, the Parks seem to live an untroubled and happy existence; their crime is in being so comfortable that they can’t really imagine anyone is struggling. And the Kims are not made saints by their poverty, either.
The film is a thematically familiar territory for him; his films always paired heart-stopping and imaginative terror with humor and a healthy dose of raging at inequality, and this one feels in many ways like the culmination. The seeds of what transpires, at least tonally, are planted right from the start. It’s a masterful way of film-making that helps punctuate the final turn of events in the film.
The 132 minutes run time may start to feel a tad long during the closing act, but this is really a nitpick, as it’s hard to find any flaw here.
The entire cast does a noteworthy job in their roles. Each character has their own unique traits, and the whole cast ranging from Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun Kyun, Cho Yeo Jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Chang Hyae-jin and Jung Ziso do very well. In supporting turns, Lee Jung-eun and Park Myung-hoon are excellent too. On the whole, ‘Parasite’ is a twisty and pummeling thriller that is thoughtfully witty, astounding, stunning, and deserves to be lauded as a timeless masterpiece.
Directed – Bong Joon Ho
Rated – R
Run Time – 132 minutes