“Parasite”: A smart and suspenseful look at a broken system

Year: 2019
Runtime: 132 Minutes
Director/Writer: Bong Joon Ho
Stars: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, So-dam Park, Jeong-eun Lee, Hye-jin Jang

By Calum Cooper

Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite” (2019) finally hits British cinemas this week after months of sweeping award circuits all across the world, from the Palme d’Or, to most recently, the BAFTAs. It has been a long and painful wait, but it has been worth it. For “Parasite” is one of the best films to grace the twenty first century. It is a masterclass of virtually all filmmaking realms. But where it shines brightest is in its commentary as a scathing critique of modern capitalism.

Our main characters are the Kim family – father Ki-Taek (Song Kang-Ho), mother Chung-Sook (Chang Hyae-Jin) , son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-Shik), and daughter Ki-Jeong (Park So-Dam). They live in a tiny semi-basement house barely two rooms big. They are so poor they have to hijack neighbouring WiFi for their phones, yet they hold on to the notion that hard work will get them out of poverty.

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Woo-sik Choi and So-dam Park in Gisaengchung (2019)

An opportunity arises for Ki-Woo when a friend asks him to take over as an English tutor for an upper-class family, the Parks. Ki-Woo protests, for he does not have a degree. “So fake it”, says his friend. And fake it Ki-Woo does. With clever photoshop, and impressive acting, Ki-Woo finds himself becoming a valued member of the Park family with his tutoring. A complex plan forms, and, slowly but surely, the Kims start integrating themselves into the lives of the Parks. But that’s when the narrative twists begin.

The architecture of the two different homes are characters in their own right; stairs being visuals metaphors for status.

Class and social division are themes Bong has tackled before. His film “Snowpiercer” (2013), where the idea for “Parasite” first originated, addressed similar topics, albeit in a sci-fi setting. But through stellar production, terrific performances, and nuanced direction, Bong takes a modern South Korean story, and gives it a loud enough voice to be heard by the entire world. To use Bong’s own words, we all live under one state – capitalism.

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Woo-sik Choi in Gisaengchung (2019)

The architecture of the two different homes are characters in their own right; stairs being visuals metaphors for status. The Kims effectively live underground, a stairway down being their only entrance. Everything is cramped and minimal. Meanwhile, the Parks have spacious rooms and have to ascend meandering hills and opulent staircases to reach their home, crystallizing the status of wealth. If you want a good life and fortune then you have to climb to the top. This is an ideology the Kims believe. It is visualised as such through a scholar’s rock Ki-Woo is given by his friend, something which supposedly brings luck and fortune. Yet this ideology is so inherently flawed. The Kims’ infiltration of the Parks’ home is nothing short of genius, but, as the film unfolds, it still may not be enough to free them from their poverty.

There is a degree of unpredictability to “Parasite” that elevates this. It is regarded as a Black Comedy Thriller, and its tone certainly matches. There is a morbidly dark, sense of humour woven into the script.

The Parks home lifestyle is a pipe dream for the Kims. Yet “Parasite” is not a black and white story of good poor people and terrible rich people. The waters are muddied through a mixture of action and attitudes displayed from the various characters. The Kims are technically breaking the law, but since we see how dire their situation is we greatly empathise. Meanwhile, the Park family appears to be friendly enough, if not the most aware. But as Chung-Sook says, “They’re nice because they’re rich.”

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Woo-sik Choi and So-dam Park in Gisaengchung (2019)

How they obtained this wealth does not matter. Their general attitudes matter little, for they are an aspiration of which the Kims will likely never be able to reach, whether legitimate or not. One of many phenomenal moments includes a rain storm, which is seen as inconvenient to the Parks, but disastrous to the Kims. How are the Kims supposed to achieve wealth through any means when even the weather can uproot their plan?

There is a degree of unpredictability to “Parasite” that elevates this. It is regarded as a Black Comedy Thriller, and its tone certainly matches. There is a morbidly dark, sense of humour woven into the script. The setup is, after all, as absurd as it is brilliant. But, just when you think the Kims have pulled it off, the story starts to show its hand. The film goes from an exciting comedy into a deeply suspenseful thriller. The second half of “Parasite” is as scary as a horror, for it reveals the shockingly cyclical nature of poverty under modern capitalism, as well as its imperviousness to different generations.

“Parasite” does not put a foot wrong in either of its thematic or narrative capabilities. Via suspenseful drama, dark comedy, and an ingenious script and set design, the film offers commentary worthy of Ken Loach.

The Kims’ situation is not unique to them, and it still won’t be even if they do somehow pull off this scheme. It places the Kim family in a distressing situation that can only end in the cycle tragically re-starting. It begs the question, who are the real parasites? Those who thrives comfortably off the broken system of capitalism, or those who try in vain to achieve the same comfort?

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Hyun-jun Jung, Yeo-jeong Jo, and Woo-sik Choi in Gisaengchung (2019)

Bong achieves this through various means: striking cinematography and set design, subtle special effects, and utterly extraordinary performances from his ensemble cast, all of whom work off each other flawlessly. But it is in his empathetic direction where the film’s view on capitalism is made clear. It portrays this family as flawed, but nonetheless clever, creative, and skilled. In different circumstances, they could be the ones living in the Park mansion. They work hard enough to deserve better than what they have at the very least. But this is not to be, and unless the broken system of which most of the world lives under is challenged, the Kims’ dream of making enough money to live as lavishly as the Parks will forever be merely a dream, as shown in the film’s devastating final shot.

“Parasite” does not put a foot wrong in either of its thematic or narrative capabilities. Via suspenseful drama, dark comedy, and an ingenious script and set design, the film offers commentary worthy of Ken Loach. It is a film as ferocious in its conviction as it is sublime in its storytelling. There is a reason why it has achieved the fame it has, and here is hoping it goes on to spread its influence beyond the cinema. With films like this, borders simply cease to exist.

5 stars

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