Starring: Song Kang-Ho, Sun-Kyun Lee, Yeo-Jeong Jo, Choi Woo-Sik & So-dam Park
Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho
Distributed by: CJ Entertainment
Release Date: May 2019
Running Time: 132 mins
Synopsis: The Kim family are close. All four live in a tiny basement flat and all four are unemployed. But when the son, Ki-woo, is recommended by his friend to take a well-paid tutoring job, hopes of a regular income blossom on the horizon. There’s only one small issue – he’s not a qualified teacher and has to fake it. Carrying the expectations of all his family, Ki-woo heads to the extravagant Park family home for an interview and after securing the job discovers they also need an art tutor for their son, something he thinks his sister could pretend to do… if they don’t know she’s his sister. Soon the whole family has infiltrated the Park home but as their deception unravels events begin to get increasingly out of hand.
Notable for being the first non-English film to win “Best Picture” at the 2020 Oscars, Parasite is a Korean drama from director Bong Joon-Ho, best known globally for his films Snowpiercer and Okja. I was recommended to watch this film by Alfie’s Film Reviews (NSFW content) who is known to love a bandwagon or two, but with the strict caveat that I didn’t read anything about the film beforehand as there was “a mental twist”. Unfortunately, this led me to believe that there was a science-fiction or horror element to the film and the “parasite” of the title might be more literal than it first appeared. It isn’t a spoiler to say that isn’t the case, although the film does hold some dark secrets as it manages to transcend genre as it shifts from dark comedy to tense thriller in the blink of an eye (or the buzz of an intercom).
I’ve enjoyed my fair share Korean films in the past, mostly the brilliant Vengeance Trilogy from Park Chan-Wook, and watching Parasite reminded me of why I love this particular genre of film. There is a bold unpredictability to Korean movies that excites me as a viewer, and this is most noticeable in these types of thrillers where the script goes to places that most American movies wouldn’t even consider. There is a Shakespearian quality to Parasite that reminds me of Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (which also stars Song Kang-Ho), in that there is an overwhelming sense of inevitability and tragedy to the stories that the protagonists cannot avoid. Where Joon-Ho’s film differs from Chan-Wook’s trilogy is that there is a lighter mood and a darkly comic tone to the film, even during the shocking climax.
The film revolves around the Kim family, who live in a sub-basement and spend most of their time scrounging free Wi-Fi from local restaurants, making sub-par pizza boxes and trying to stop the local drunks from urinating through their front window. After the son is recommended for a tutor job working for the wealthy Park family, a chain of events begin which sees the entire Kim family scheme to ingratiate themselves in various roles. Initially depicted as unsympathetic leads due to their unscrupulous employment tactics, the Kim family are surprisingly likeable even as they are shown as the titular ‘parasites’, leeching off of the Park’s generosity and naivety. However, developments in the film reveal other candidates for the label of ‘parasite’ with the Park family shown to be both dependant on their house staff, and judgmental of their appearances.
Parasite works as a fascinating examination of the “upstairs/downstairs” phenomenon of the rich and their staff, viewing the concept through an atypical lens as in the UK we’re used to the likes of Downton Abbey and other period dramas showcasing this set-up. Joon-Ho pays reverence to this genre by specifically highlighting staircases in the story with the poor seen living below grounds as the rich live on the upper levels. The idea of the rich living above the poor permeates in a lot of fiction, even in videogames such as Final Fantasy VII, and Joon-Ho makes this notion an integral element of his story, with dramatic effects. Location plays an important part of Parasite’s story, with both the Kim and Park households evoking a keen sense of atmosphere. The juxtaposition between the two families is particularly striking and while the Kim family are able to infiltrate the world of the rich and successful, they are living on borrowed time until they are “sniffed out”.
As the feckless patriarch of the Kim family, Song Kang-Ho brings a surprising amount of depth to the role as his exposure to the perfect lives of the Park family reveals a bitterness at his own station in life. I was also impressed with the performances from the brother-sister siblings of the Kim family played by Choi Woo-Shik and Park So-Dam, as it is their greed and ambition that sets the events of the film into motion. In fact, the entire cast deliver some outstanding performances including the younger actors. Joon-Ho’s keen directorial eye results in some gorgeous cinematography and iconic shots that no doubt contributed to its “Best Picture” win, although credit must also go towards the film’s classical music score which really drives the intensity of the situation in the second half of the movie, making the tension almost unbearable.
Parasite is a tremendous film and fully deserving of its accolades in both its home country and worldwide. It is currently the highest-grossing South Korean film ($264m worldwide) and its success at the Oscars has no doubt introduced film fans to the delights of Korean cinema. While it is an incredible film, it doesn’t quite top Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy for me, and lacks that same nihilistic energy as those films. If you have watched and enjoyed Parasite, I strongly recommend checking out those two movies for a similar tone. It has been a while since I’ve seen a Korean film and watching Parasite has certainly reinvigorated my appetite for world cinema, so much so that I am keen to watch Bong Joon-Ho’s earlier films as well as other recent releases from South Korea such as Train to Busan.