Director: Bong Joon-ho Starring: Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin Running Time: 132 minutes
The long anticipated Parasite from acclaimed director Bong Joon-ho has arrived on Irish big screens right at the end of what has turned out to be an incredible run of Oscar contenders. While in many ways the Academy Awards could well be regarded as an over inflated industry award, it is difficult not to get caught up in all of the fuss surrounding what is unquestionably the most notable event of the year in film. Similarly, while it might make more sense to maintain objectivity when reviewing films, it’s often challenging to suspend your own excitement for films that you’ve been personally routing for. On it’s own merit, I had been eagerly anticipating the release of Parasite for months. As someone who was first introduced to the now well-established perceptive craft of Bong Joon-ho since The Host in 2006, I was even more delighted that his latest work seemed to be getting the level of international traction that many South Korean films in the last year have undeservedly lacked. Casting memory back through the last couple of years, there seems to have been at least one highly impressive hit coming out of the country every year. In 2016 there was Train to Busan, a frantic and kinetic zombie movie tracking the desperation of a father and daughter to escape a lethal viral outbreak. In 2017 there was Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, a stylish period thriller that picked up the BAFTA for Best Film Not In The English Language. Then there was Lee Chang-dong’s Burning in 2018, a slow burning psychological mystery. All of these features could more than match the weight of any Oscar winning Hollywood films in recent years, but many were regrettably limited to selected art house screenings.
While there’s a wider case to be made about the relatively undiscovered brilliance of Korean cinema, it’s unsurprisingly all about Bong Joon-ho at the moment. It’s his moment, and it’s a deserved moment. In 2006, The Host was about a giant amphibious monster that jumps out of Seoul’s Han river and literally kidnaps a young child. In his other most notable work, Okja, the story focuses on the exploitation of a fictional super animal, appearing as some kind of cross between a hippo and a pig. What these stories have in common, is that they use fictional exaggeration to usher in perceptive social commentary. Both the creature of Okja and the sea monster from The Host were mythical, but they were incredibly effective at underscoring the broader points that Bong Joon-ho was attempting to make. The Host starts off with an American military scientist ordering a Korean colleague to dump formaldehyde into the Han river. With Okja, the bleak imagery used to highlight the abusive factory farming industry was enough to get many people off meat permanently. The signature of Bong Joon-ho’s filmography, if there is one, is the use of stories steeped in seemingly inconceivable situations to highlight some of the starkest realities that plague humanity. Parasite, undoubtedly his finest work, is a welcome continuation of this fascinating and career defining trend.
It all centres around the Kim family, who live in an urban “semi-basement” and just about get by. Brilliantly, the camera work almost seems to point out of their house towards the nearby upward hill, as if to use the physically low positioning of their location to indicate their position in the hierarchical social ladder. The depth of their grim living situation is clear from the very start, including the father Ki-Taek’s enthusiastic claim that they can use the street’s fumigation service as a “free extermination” by opening the windows and letting the toxic chemicals in. It’s a bleak existence, but one that’s also characterised by a lot of dark humour in these intriguing opening scenes.
One night, the son Ki-Woo, has a visit from his more privileged friend Min-Hyuk. He’s going to study abroad, and asks Ki-Woo to take over from him in his part time job of tutoring English to the daughter of the upper class Park family. Even in this scene, the subtleties of the class divisions are successfully highlighted through the screenplay. The wealthy and educated friend points out that he would rather have Ki Woo take over as tutor as opposed to the rich asshole friends from university. While it’s complementary on the face of it, it’s clear that he treats Ki-Woo as a less threatening replacement, and one that he sees as below him in this widening social ladder.
Ki Woo decides to take up the offer, and gets his artistic and talented sister Ki-Jeong to forge a University accreditation so he can secure the job. After an impressive and charismatic first encounter, Ki Woo gets the job. Upon doing so, he convinces the Park family to hire his sister as an art tutor for the family’s son. The trouble is, the Park family have no idea that Ki – Jeong and Ki Woo are related. This is where the spiral of deception begins, and the deeper the Kim family infiltrate the Park’s network, the more engrossing the events are that unfold.
Every performance in Parasite is superb. Collectively, the Kim family are incredibly adept at appearing to be the kind of people that they know the Park family want them to be. This is strengthened by skillful writing, and while it might be a disservice to compare it to a Hollywood film, it all really has the feel of The Talented Mr. Ripley in this impostor aspect of the plot. The class divisions are an important part of what galvanises the development of main characters, and this is exquisitely conveyed through some strong imagery throughout. There are numerous moments where the impossibly lavish high life of the Korean upper-class is brilliantly juxtaposed with the sewage infested poverty of the Kim family. Images as simple as a cut of expensive steak in the home of the Park family ensure that the raw point about societal divisions is made. It feeds into the resentment of the Kim family towards the life that they can’t have but lust for, and asks a lot of questions to the viewer without serving up any easy answers. What’s even more impressive however, is that the affluent Park family aren’t painted as horrible people. They come off as ignorant symptoms of the capitalistic divide, not the route cause of it. Captivating performances from Cho Yeo-Jeong and Lee Jung-Eun stand out in what was an impeccable casting all round.
There’s been a lot of talk about the blending of genres that Parasite represents. This is true, but it’s true in all the best ways. Much like the wiggling of a parasitic bug, it’s very tricky to thematically pin down. It works as a comedy, it works as a social satire, and it works as a psychological horror. Among the trending interest, this has led some people to claim that the film stands in a genre of its own. Well, aside from the lower and upper classes that illustrate the development of this superb masterpiece, Parasite also emerges in a class of its own.(5 / 5)