Release: Friday, November 8, 2019
Written by: Bong Joon Ho; Jin Won Han
Directed by: Bong Joon Ho
I don’t know why, or how, I have never seen a Bong Joon Ho movie before now. The South Korean filmmaker is one of those major voices of world cinema that’s hard to ignore. Yet here I am, crawling out from underneath a (scholar’s) rock. And I wonder if all his movies are quite as metaphorical as Parasite? Or as good. Even if they aren’t he already has a fan in me; you all know how much I love metaphors. Even if they aren’t exactly subtle.
Parasite is a brilliant allegory for class warfare that to’s and fro’s between homes, between worlds and between seemingly disparate genres. The story, collaborated on by Ho and screenwriter Jin Won Han, focuses on the relationship between two families existing on opposite ends of the wealth spectrum. As you might suspect from the title, we are supposed to feel a certain way about that relationship, maybe even take sides. Ascertaining who the real bad and good guys are — or, if you like to play the metaphor game like I do, as we are perhaps intended here, who the real “parasites” and “hosts” are — is kind of the whole point of the exercise. Judging who is actually being victimized proves thrillingly challenging when every character is shaded with a moral grayness, when there is more going on beneath the surface than what first appears.
Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is the sloven patriarch of the Kim clan. He’s fallen on hard times with his restaurant business having collapsed. He has absolutely no prospects of securing regular income, but he does have the love of his family. His wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin), disaffected twentysomething daughter Ki-jeong (Park So Dam) and college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo Sik) help him fold pizza boxes as a way to make some pennies. They steal wifi from upstairs (you just have to find the right corner in the right room) and allow themselves to be swallowed whole by the debris storms blown in from outside as street cleaners effectively double as fumigation for their semi-basement-level apartment.
Ki-taek can only see it as a blessing when a family friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), one day comes by and gifts Ki-woo a “scholar’s rock,” which he says will bring material wealth to those in possession of it. Ki-woo views it as more metaphorical (then again, he says that about everything). That same friend later offers Ki-woo a job opportunity — he’s leaving the country to study abroad and needs someone to replace him as a tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Parks, who are apparently “nice but gullible.” For Ki-woo, who’s tired of combatting the homeless who like to urinate near their kitchen window, this is a no-brainer; he just needs some important documents to be forged and to make a good impression during the interview.
After gaining the Parks’ trust Ki-woo puts into motion an ambitious plan to get other members of his family involved. One by one they will each take on a different role serving this well-to-do household. Chauffeurs, live-in nannies, art therapists — opportunity abounds here. If all goes according to plan, something Papa Kim does not like to do as he thinks plans always fail, they will pull this off without ever being suspected of being related. What results goes beyond the most ingenious home invasion scheme you’ve ever seen; this is more like a life invasion — a long con of increasing boldness as the Kims set about vicariously living that sweet life, feeling very little remorse over the things they have done to ingratiate themselves into a world in which they seemingly do not belong.
Parasite made history at Cannes last year, becoming the first Korean film to take home the coveted Palme d’Or, the swanky film festival’s top prize.* I’m really not trying to invoke Ron Burgundy here but it’s kind of a big deal. Some fans have even renamed the honor the ‘Bong d’Or.’ So that’s been fun, and Parasite has been a fun movie to follow. It’s become a buzz word, a fashionable Google search ever since it first premiered, with Ho at the center of a lot of Oscartalk. Can he vie for one of those, too? Or is that just asking too much?
I tell you what would be asking too much: wanting more than what he delivers in his seventh feature film. The intrigue factor is ratcheted up constantly by a smart concept, a camera that moves voyeuristically through the intricacies of gorgeous, purpose-built sets, and Ho’s confident, playful direction. How he keeps Parasite from tipping completely into serendipity is no small feat, even though there are one or two elements here that threaten to cross the line (basement-operated light-switches, anyone? What architect thought that was a good idea?). Performances are uniformly excellent, and on multiple levels.
What’s most impressive is how Parasite fashions incredible entertainment out of a sobering reality. Ho is clearly sympathetic to the struggles of the working class and he’s put together a movie that’s both cultural and universal. This is the product of a director who has spent some 50 years watching his home transform from one of the poorest to among the most advanced industrial economies in the world. While Parasite certainly speaks to the direness of the Korean class divide its greatest strength is how it feels accessible as a human drama about dignity and decency.
* it also became THE FIRST KOREAN Film TO HAVE WON A GOLDEN GLOBE AWARD.
Recommendation: For this Bong Joon Ho newbie, Parasite is among the best movies of 2019. It’s a scathing indictment of the capitalist system that also happens to be blisteringly entertaining. Its message is creatively and powerfully delivered without being obnoxious. If you enjoy movies with sophisticated plots and that do not fit neatly into any one particular genre, Parasite should burrow deep into your skin.
Running Time: 132 mins.
Quoted: “They’re rich but they’re still nice . . .”
“They’re nice because they’re rich!”
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Photo credits: IMDb