Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s scintillating, soul-searing film, is close to home in every way, so close it gets under your skin. Wildly entertaining, funny, bizarre, and suspenseful, with an excellent ensemble cast, intriguing and precise design, clever pacing, and beguiling soundtrack which embraces George Frideric Handel, Gianni Morandi, and original music by Jung Jae-il. Its social critique is all the more powerful in its refusal to designate heroes or villains.
The Kim family lives in a basement apartment, with a street level view of the world through a dirty window. Warm and affectionate despite the cramped quarters and meager existence, this lively crew is first encountered as they scout around their small space, phones in hand, searching for an open Wi-Fi connection. As one does. Well, maybe we haven’t actually lived in a basement, or piggybacked on a neighbor’s internet connection, but it’s close enough that we can relate, and so we’re drawn in.
Yet the Kim family is caught in the vicious cycle of poverty, and it is not clear that they can break out. Even though mom Chung-soon (Chang Hyae-jin) used to be an athlete (there’s a medal on the wall to prove it) and dad Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) are still relatively young and able bodied, and their two grown children – son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) – seem quite capable, the family is reduced to folding pizza boxes for a pittance. Is it for lack of trying? The viewer is soon informed that Ki-woo has failed his university admissions examinations four times. Does that imply that he lacks the intellectual ability? As the film’s events unfold, demonstrating Ki-woo’s intelligence and creativity, the question lingers in the background: what was the cause of his failure?
Opportunity knocks in the handsome form of Ki-woo’s friend Min, who is off to study abroad, and suggests that Ki-woo replace him as the English tutor for Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the daughter of the wealthy Park family. Taking “Fake it till you make it” quite literally, Ki-jung uses her talents to create documents that will establish her brother as a credible scholar. The Kim family reveal no qualms about lies or forgery, apparently, the only moral imperative is survival.
As Ki-woo climbs the staircase to the Park home, he sees how the other half lives. It’s a different world, one of verdant lawns, wide open spaces, sleek design and fruit plates that look like art. Not to mention tutors to help you pass your exams. One might, at this point, be tempted to root for the underdog, and primed to resent or dislike the Parks. Yet the Parks, despite a tendency to be a tad self-absorbed, are quite likeable. Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) is the very image of a young, successful businessman. CEO of an IT company, he works the predictable long hours, but seems like a loving and concerned father and husband when he is at home. Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), his wife, is, as one might expect, beautiful, impeccably and modestly clad, with a disarming sweetness and vulnerability. They are unfailingly courteous to the people who work for them, yet at the same time, reveal the annoying naivete and glaring blind spots of the wealthy classes. Their daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso) accepts the bounty of her existence without question, yet her sheltered life has never exposed her to any reason to question. Her younger brother Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) is very energetic, with a rebellious streak, a typical young kid whose every mood and gesture is seen through the magnifying glass of over-attentive and over-indulgent parenting. In other words, mom thinks he’s an artistic genius. And so, the plot thickens.
As Ki-woo takes up his position as tutor in the Park home, the destinies of the two families converge. Parasite explores the condition of wealth, the condition of poverty, and their effect. The connection of wealth and service makes for strange bedfellows, creating involuntary intimacy between the wealthy employer and the impoverished employee who share the same space, yet between them there exists and unbreachable distance. Hilarious, shocking, and poignant, Parasite is a brilliant tour de force.
Director: Bong Joon-ho; Screenplay: Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won; Cinematography: Hong Kyung-pyo; Editor: Yang Jinmo; Music: Jung Jae-il; Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Lee Sun-kyun, Park So-dam, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin, Jung Ziso, Jung Hyeon-jun.