A funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars this year -- the Academy voted for what may have been the best, most original feature in the stack of nominees. Bong Joon Ho's South Korean movies have been piercing the American market for years now, if on a specialized genre level. But even his monster movie The Host features a deeply-rooted social comment. A good part of Seoul is driven from their homes by a crazy fish-monster, and the family on view must spend time in a poorly-organized government shelter. The same thing happens in Bong's brilliant black comedy Parasite, which skips genre ideas like a monster or a fantastic train, to get down to the nitty gritty of good old-fashioned class warfare.
Yes, the show is in the Korean language, and one must read subtitles. Bong Joon Ho is on record with a great quote about subtitle allergies in the U.S.: nobody should be stopped by a barrier that's just an inch tall. Several friends told me that Parasite is brilliant, with no caveats or disclaimers. I'll really limit the spoilers here. My observations shouldn't spoil the movie, which is much more than a typical comedic satire. Its truths are indeed funny, and often wickedly funny. But the truth hurts, and with every story development we can sense a highly intelligent social criticism at work.
How to review Parasite, and not give it away? I can do that by describing its general subject matter -- which I find fascinating. If the movie had a secondary title, it might be Asymmetrical Social Warfare. The downtrodden have-not Kim family don't want a revolution, they just want a place in the economic system -- a goal they've decided is un-attainable by honest means. They long ago abandoned the fantasy that the Shavian 'undeserving poor' can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and instead are prepared to lie, deceive, scrape and crawl their way to a place of security. Yes, it's open season on the wealthy Parks -- the gullible, neurotic new techno-rich society family.
This could be a South Korean version of a 'Hatfields and McCoys' feud, except that the unemployed Kims don't mean to raise bloody hell, and the wealthy Parks never know what hit them. The Kims are a family of four adults. The mother was once an athletic champion. Things have deteriorated to the point that they're folding boxes for a pizza business, and even that boss is gravely dissatisfied with their work. But when an opportunity comes for the son Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) to home-tutor the daughter of the wealthy IT entrepreneur Mr. Park (Lee Sun Kyun), the Kim family uses lies and deception to insinuate itself into paying jobs with their new host family.
That's literally all the non-spoiler storyline that's fit to print. It only remains to praise Bong Joon Ho's brilliant writing, his assured direction and the skill of his cast. It's of course a South Korean movie, but the situations presented translate to practically anywhere. There couldn't be more contrast in how the story's two families live. The have-not Kims live in a basement apartment overrun by roaches. One must climb up some steps almost to ceiling level to reach the toilet, a bit of plumbing insanity to keep it from overflowing. A big rain eventually makes that happen anyway. As for the wealthy Park family, their designer house was purchased direct from the famous architect that built it. It's all concrete, glass and polished wood, with a broad lawn out back. The new owners were never told about other architectural details, that figure strongly in the plot later on.
The 'perfect' Parks in the swank house on the hill are vulnerable because they have reputations to protect and kids that must succeed in life. The nervous, status-conscious Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo Jeong) will do anything to give her teenage daughter and young son an advantage in school. The Kims exploit these bourgeois fears to the hilt, which of course provides hilarious fodder for Parasite's black comedy. The ever-cautious Mrs Park is easily manipulated. Ki-woo and his sister Ki-jung (Park So Dam) sell themselves as elite, exclusive tutors, which only makes Mrs. Park more eager to hire them.
If Parasite were just a simple farce, the two families would be belligerent but silly. Things would come to a harmless conclusion, perhaps with the poor boy marrying the rich girl, or the rich father discovering that the poor father's street-smart skills are ideal for closing a big deal back at the office. It is instead a hardcore black comedy, the kind of twisted tale that opens a vein of uncomfortable truth and lets the hilarity bleed out. Funny ha-ha becomes funny-tragic. The surrealist genius Luis Buñuel would approve mightily of Bong Joon Ho's approach, as the petty sins of the bourgeois were prime Don Luis material. As in the films of the Spanish rebel, Bong stays true to his dark vision. Once the comic knife is in, he's not afraid to give it a twist.
Bong Joon Ho is a top-rank writer-director: observant, flexible and highly intelligent. The movie has zero fat in story or tone; it neither rushes nor drags, and every scene advances the premise, introduces new elements and new humor. We laugh at the gullibility of the Parks and the ruthless pragmatism of the Kims -- easch seems born to exploit the other. The poor Kim family considers their dishonest depredations as basic survival skills. The rich Parks hire and fire people in ways designed to hide their true motivations.
The contrast in living conditions is not really exaggerated, and the cruel equation of 'economically asymmetric' employment was never so clearly stated. The boss Mr. Park is friendly to Mr. Kim only as long as he's getting full cooperation. The moment Mr. Kim complains, he's reminded that he's being paid. The essential power discrepancy is always there, no matter the situation. When the Parks decide to hold an impromptu lawn party, it's assumed that his employees will cooperate, even on their day off. The boss's petty convenience trumps any rights the employee might think he has.
Bong Joon Ho's narrative surprises always make sense; nothing is arbitrary. The story events teach a strange lesson about the class divide: underdogs will do anything to not lose the paltry advantages their conniving has won, especially when defending their turf against competing underdogs. If they must, a have-not will live like an insect, sneaking out at night to forage for food.
Parasite offers insights as to why the insolent underclass is so resentful. When things go wrong, Mr. Kim says he never makes plans. Without power, his plans almost always fail anyway. But if he makes no plan, he can claim to bear no responsibility for what might happen, no matter who gets hurt. Why carry the burden of responsibility, if you haven't the means to do anything properly? I doubt that the Parks, or a judge in a criminal court, would every understand Mr. Kim's existential rationalization.
Bong Joon Ho demonstrates the dynamic of this social conflict without ever having to literally spell it out. He respects his serio-comic characters. All are lovable, or at least understandable, on their own terms. They have honest personal feelings, and the Park daughter and Kim son are indeed strongly attracted to each other. The Kim family are wanting in morals, but they genuinely support each other, and stick together in good humor. The well-heeled Mr. and Mrs. Park are spoiled elites, but they definitely mean well and believe in fair play. They don't realize that they use their economic advantage as a battering ram, reducing their servants to functionaries with no rights.
The film's appeal is borderless yet it doesn't lose track of its South Korean identity. Mr. Kim makes a joke (I think) about not knowing the roads North of the 38th parallel. The North Korean enemy must be a source of limitless cosmic fear in the South, but in one really strange moment, a traumatized character verbally identifies with that same enemy. The exact meaning of those references will have to be explained to me -- I don't claim to be an expert on South Korean cinema. But the wickedly satiric through-line of Parasite is crystal clear: the movie is a black comedy crime caper committed across the economic divide. It's definitely twisted in outlook, but it's also really funny. I saw it first on Blu-ray, and laughed out loud more than once.
Universal / Neon's Blu-ray of Parasite is the expected flawless digital presentation of this popular come-from-behind favorite with six Oscar nominations, and four big wins. The art direction makes the most of the contrast between the two dwellings in the show, with the yellowed textures of broken tiles in the Kim's basement apartment clashing with the modernist space and light of the Parks' designer house on the hill. Nestled behind a concrete security barrier, the Park compound is locked away from the outside world. The Kims' only view is of an alley that drunks use as a toilet.
The one extra is a lively post-screening Q&A session with Bong Joon Ho. It's professionally taped and lasts about twenty minutes... I was relieved to hear the host immediately discussing Parasite in the same way I was -- I haven't heard this much talk about architectural 'levels' since Michael Powell's Peeping Tom.
I wouldn't be surprised if Criterion already has future plans for a special edition of Parasite, as they have access to Universal product, and the charming Bong Joon Ho has already proven himself an expert spokesman for his fine pictures. His personal involvement in the publicity push perfectly positioned his film for Academy voters. Many U.K. movies have won the best picture Oscar, but this is the first year that a film in a foreign language has taken that honor, and won for best foreign film as well. The show is not an underdog indie in the standard sense, so its win can't be called some kind of industry upset. But it certainly shows how the landscape for distribution is changing the way people see movies.