I thought I was going to miss out on this movie, but thanks to its recent historical success at the Oscars, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s film got a second life at the cinemas. It’s a remarkable and wildly entertaining ride that deserves to be seen on a big screen, if only for the reactions of the crowd gasping out loud at the movie’s twists and turns.
I managed to go into Parasite knowing almost nothing about the story and with no expectations other than that, having seen Snowpiercer by the same director, I had an inkling it was going to be a rather bizarre experience. Expectation fulfilled; I find it hard to really describe Parasite or compare it to anything else I’ve seen as the movie is truly unclassifiable and juggles so many things at once: family drama, black comedy, thriller, horror and social satire. Most remarkably, it manages to blend its elements and tonal shifts seamlessly, a no small feat that so many other films attempt but flunk completely.
For a while, things play out in a relatively straightforward and mostly comedic manner. We meet the Kim family of four, who live destitute in a squalid semi-basement in Seoul and, in the opening scene, run around the apartment hunting for spots with free stray wi-fi. An exterminator shows up on their street; might as well open the window and let the toxic fumes in for some free bug-killing. The Kims might be poor but they’re a united family, who have nothing but each other and their wits. So when son Ki-woo gets an unexpected offer from his well-off friend to take over his job tutoring a teenage rich girl, his talented sister Ki-jung forges a college certificate in Photoshop and Ki-woo bluffs his way in.
Ki-woo’s job takes him far away from squalor and drunks pissing on the streets, to the hilly neighbourhood where the affluent reside and into the grand elegant home of the Park family, an architectural marvel of granite and glass. It soon turns out that the anxious (and not-too-bright) Mrs Park would like to hire an art tutor for her hyperactive little son, and luckily Ki-woo knows just the right person, his sister who successfully fakes the part. Very soon, all members of the Kim family insinuate their way into the Park household without their employers knowing that they’re all related. It takes some clever scheming to get rid of the current driver to the aloof Mr Park and the Parks’ devoted housekeeper, so that father Ki-taek and mother Chung-soon can replace them.
At this point, the film’s preoccupation with the top and bottom rungs of the social ladder shifts from comedy towards something darker and things get well and truly unpredictable, with scenes of unbearable tension segueing into absurdist slapstick, then into bleak pathos and then back again. I’ve said it already, but the way Bong manages these shifts with a clockwork precision and utter assurance is nothing short of amazing and the ensemble cast is pitch-perfect.
Parasite is also a film without clear-cut heroes and villains; while it has an enormous amount of empathy for the Kims, the extent to which they’re willing to go in order to preserve their newly found good fortune gives you a pause. Likewise, while the Parks are undoubtedly obnoxious, entitled, detached and rather stupid in their privilege, they’re not actually bad. The film is less interested in castigating the individuals and more in the system that forces people into pure self-interest.