Parasite (Gisaengchung)

Korea (2019) Dir. Bong Joon-ho

The “haves” and the “have-nots” – a dichotomy that will persist as long as the concept of society continues to exist. Ne’er the twain shall meet if it can be avoided, but money buys servitude, making the poor puppets of the rich. Eventually though, something will have to give…

Unemployed driver Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives with his family wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) in a squalid semi-basement. With sparse income, the family struggle yet holds out for a better life. Luckily, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) a friend of Ki-woo, pays a visit to announce he is going abroad and suggests Ki-woo replaces him as English tutor for a rich family.

With a false university certificate and confident acting skills, Ki-woo impresses Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-Jeong) and teenage daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-So) and is hired. Meeting quirky young son Da-song (Jeong Hyun-Jun), who needs art therapy classes, Ki-woo suggests a tutor, an acquaintance named Jessica, actually sister Ki-jeong under a pseudonym. She too wows Mrs. Park and is hired. The Park’s already have a driver and housekeeper but if something were to happen to them…

Bong Joon-ho may have a small catalogue of work compared to his peers but it’s an impeccable one, covering different genres. For this Cannes Palme D’or winning entry, Bong gets darkly satirical in deconstructing the attitudes of the affluent towards the indigent. Elements of this theme have appeared in previous films like Snowpiercer but never has Bong been so savage. Parasite is typical of Korea’s extreme cinema, designed to make us say “that would never happen” then makes us look at why it is happening.

Perhaps it is the Park’s fault so being so naïve and easily led that they fell for Ki-woo’s act or “Jessica’s” improvised psychobabble about art and therapy; the affectation of vanity born from their comfortable life means they only see value in shiny things. We should feel unease at their gullibility yet find ourselves oddly beguiled by the guile and inventiveness of the Kims to pull off such a wheeze that maybe these rich oafs deserve to be conned.

Getting Ki-taek on the pay roll, Ki-jeong sets up the Park’s dashing young driver Yoon (Park Keun-Rok) to get him fired (leading to a toe curling call back later in the film), then recommends her “Uncle” as a replacement. Winning over Mr. Park (Lee Sun-Kyun), Ki-taek is behind the wheel, leaving housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-Eun) to fall victim to the most elaborate plan yet, but the execution is flawless, and soon Chung-sook is the new housekeeper.

If you think I’ve spoiled the film by relating the entire plot, I haven’t as this is only half the story. There is an almighty shift in dynamic and tone at the halfway mark to upturn everything, in the process bringing out the worst in everyone involved in the name of survival and keeping up appearances. The satire is still present but Bong takes further into the darkness to the point where maybe we shouldn’t be laughing anymore.

There is a startling precision in the way Bong captures the oblivious, inherent snobbery of the nouveau riche towards the lower classes, punctuated at the perfect moment in what is perhaps the most ludicrous scene of the film. It is also the crucial point where the various strands of deceit snap, their unravelling exposing not just the truth but also the cost of looking down on others in the most tragic way possible.

Mrs. Park is as vacuous as she is hopeless, whilst Mr. Park appears to show some signs of substance to his character, the reality is his morals are dictated by his bank balance. Da-song is reeling from a traumatic experience he witnessed a few years earlier hence his erratic behaviour whilst Da-hye is he most “normal” of the household by comparison, i.e. a soppy teenager in love.

One might liken the Kims to the makeshift family in Koreeda’s Shoplifters – a tight knit unit on the fringe of society through no fault of their own, forced to resort to desperate measure to keep their heads above water. Theft isn’t a primary course of action and they are prepared to work for their money, they were just a little “creative” with the facts in securing work.

Bong doesn’t glamorise or justify their actions by making the Kims indignant enough to harbour feelings of animus towards the Parks for their wealth; they actually agree the Parks are nice people and don’t deserve to be cheated, but in their minds this is not what they are doing per se. Fate is the primary factor of this whole story – Bong is saying some people are fated to have money and some aren’t, both scenarios requiring different disciplines to handle them.

Yet, he also asserts that money doesn’t make a person any better, and in the case of both families, it has made them worse but for different reasons. In an ideal world, wealth would be shared equally then they would be no need for pomposity and entitlement endemic among the rich elite, nor would there be resentment from the less well off – an ideal world we’ll probably never see. Here Bong shows us the worst excesses of both to illustrate why.

Song Kang-ho, a veteran collaborator with Bong, leads the impressive cast list as only he can, an everyman able to adapt to any situation but always imbues his performance with truth, good or bad. Park So-dam is another standout, but in all honestly each member of the Kim family beings their own special ingredient to make this a tangible close unit, with the Parks being enjoyably detached.

A socially relevant savage satire that pierces deep into our hearts and minds, Parasite sees Bong at the height of his powers as a filmmaker, confidently commanding every aspect to suit his will yet allowing the audience in on his vision too. Sublime.