Directed by Bong Joon Ho
From 14th February 2020
Reviewed by Nick Daly
It’s clear to see how Parasite has become the success it has, being a South Korean film that has crossed borders like few before it, becoming the first foreign-language film to win a Best Picture Oscar.
It manages to straddle the line between arthouse and mainstream, being both artistic and entertaining, while providing a social commentary that doesn’t condescend or alienate but is actually highly relevant and relatable.
The Kim family, father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, daughter Ke-jeong and son Ki-woo, are a struggling low-class family, living in a semi-basement apartment with menial jobs in South Korea. It’s symbolised by how their toilet is elevated on a high step in their bathroom, cleverly demonstrating how the family are literally living in the sewers.
An opportunity arises, however, when Ki-woo’s university student friend, Min-hyuk, suggests he replaces him as an English tutor to the wealthy Park family. The Kim’s, desperate and cunning, seize the chance and begin to manipulate the Park family, particularly its naive matriarch Yeon-kyo, into unknowingly hiring the whole family.
The acting is practically flawless, with each actor personifying their character from each family perfectly. A particular mention must go to Yeo-jeong Jo, who plays the wide-eyed and trusting Yeon-kyo, and embodies the black comic and satirical spirit of the film so resolutely that she feels central to the film.
While it would be easy for a film meditating on inequality to merely depict the poor as good and the rich as bad, Parasite is sophisticated enough not to have a clear antagonist, with the film’s title possibly referring to any character.
The viewer may most likely side with the Kim’s due to them being the underdogs of the story, but there is something undeniably repulsive in how the Kim’s infiltrate their way into the Park’s household, which is in turn equally as repulsive as the Park’s patriarch, Dong-ik, and his observation that poor people like the Kim’s have a specific smell.
The Kim family are ingenious in their plan, executing it so perfectly that they seem less like a regular family and more like the cast of Ocean’s Eleven. It’s very entertaining, but there’s a feeling that the characters are merely components in director Bong Joon-Ho’s social commentary. It’s similar to the mechanical nature of a Christopher Nolan film, in that the film’s technicalities overtake its ability to involve the viewer emotionally and feel like an organic experience.
The directing and editing is just as meticulously crafted. Each camera move is carefully considered, characters glide up and down staircases as if they’re on elevators, and the film feels like one long beautifully orchestrated dance. This sleekness of directing is comparable to a David Fincher film, but Fincher’s films, such as The Social Network and Gone Girl, often have a gritty element that prevents them from feeling too sterile.
It’s only after the first act, which culminates all of the aforementioned aspects in a brilliant 5-minute montage, that the film begins to introduce an element of spontaneity. In a scene that may feel overlong to some, the Kim family are eating and drinking in the Park’s living room while the family are away. For the first time in a while, the Kim’s feel like human beings as they drunkenly slur their words and roll about on the stylish sofa, sharing astute thoughts on their rich employers (“They’re rich but they’re nice people,” says Ki-teak, to which Chung-sook responds, “they’re nice because they’re rich.”)
It’s a welcome relief from the perfectly presented manner of the film up until that point, with proceedings beginning to feel unnervingly unpredictable and exciting, and it leads perfectly onto the next turn of the narrative. The foreboding sound of the doorbell rings, and the film’s plot, tone and genre completely changes in ways few viewers can imagine, as an extra layer of the plot is quite literally unearthed.
Like the introduction of a hidden basement in second act, the film is essentially one big metaphor. When the Kim’s are forced to flee the Park household later in the film, we see their literal descent into the poverty of their normal life, as they walk down the countless rain-soaked slopes and steps to their home. The rain, which is a mere inconvenience to the Park’s by ruining their camping trip, has flooded the Kim’s home and destroyed it, displaying how a minor issue for the rich can trickle down the class system to obliterate those at the bottom.
The film is littered with these metaphors, which can only reward the viewer on repeated viewings, and in this sense Parasite is masterful in how it visually communicates its themes. It’s certainly a film that will be, and was essentially made to be, analysed in a film studies class.
The metaphorical nature of the plot drives the narratives into bewildering, and often violent, territory. It’s silly enough not to be taken too seriously, but is serious enough to ensure the viewer feels tense and unnerved, resulting in somewhat of a bizarre film-watching experience that may not be to the taste of some viewers.
When the bleak outcomes of the characters are revealed at the end of the film, the viewer is essentially left interpreting the meaning behind their situations, rather than feeling invested in the characters and experiencing genuine emotion.
It’s clear, then, what ingredient Parasite is missing that prevents it from being a fully satisfying cinema experience: a heart. It’s undoubtedly an impressive piece of filmmaking that’s worthy of its praise and awards, but sometimes it’s the imperfections that can make something appear perfect.