ARTNEWSPRESS: Bong Joon-ho is one of the most original, vibrant voices to emerge from South Korea’s film industry, ever since the creative explosion of talent that seemed to hit around the early-2000s. Unlike many of his peers, he’s been able to jump back and forth between English-language and Korean-language films with ease, with SNOWPIERCER and OKJA big enough that he could have logically had his pick of prestige projects. Instead, he opted to return to South Korea and re-team with long-time leading man Song Kang-ho for this darkly comedic social satire. To give away anything beyond the basic set-up does the film a disservice, but true to form for its director, nothing about PARASITE is predictable or run of the mill.
Despite its South Korean setting, it’s not hard to imagine a wide audience finding much to relate to, with the bitter class divide between the have and have-nots keenly illustrated here in a way North American films have yet to tackle. It helps that the lower-class family isn’t sentimentalized – the opposite in fact. Rather, they’re portrayed as just as exploitative as their upper-class oppressors.
The title, PARASITE, may indeed refer to the put-upon family of cons, who, while living in a shabby, tiny semi-basement apartment, are gifted with a stone artifact that’s supposed to bring them good fortune. Indeed, immediately afterward, the family son (Choi Woo-shik) is offered a position as an English tutor for the Parks, a fabulously wealthy family. It doesn’t take him long to convince the gullible matriarch that her children also need an arts tutor, perfect for his sister (Park So-dam), who paves the way for her dad (Song Kang-ho) to become a chauffeur, who gets his wife (Chang Hyae-jin) work as the housekeeper, and so on, allowing them to take over the household and feed off their employers like – you guessed it – parasites.
Tonally, this is a delicately crafted film, with the first half almost playing out like a caper comedy as Park’s ultra-smooth son paves the way for his family to worm their way in. The family they sink their claws into are also portrayed in a comedic way, with the dad an elitist snob whose not as smart as he thinks he is, while his beautiful wife (Cho Yeo-jeong) is so gullible it doesn’t take much to convince her to dump her old servants in favour of these new ones.
In the second half, the tone begins to shift as we get into darker territory, as class resentments start to build up. Here, it becomes an utterly unique take on the the haves and have nots, with our initially roguish family showing some real pathos and, not unusual for a Bong Joon-ho movie, the constant threat that the class unbalances will teeter into chaos and violence. This makes it an interesting counter-point to SNOWPIERCER, which tackled a lot of the same themes, albeit in a more operatic, sci-fi fashion. This feels real – too real at times.
Again, a movie like PARASITE depends on an audience going into it unspoiled, so I can’t say much about the film’s second half. Suffice to say, it’s edgy and thoroughly unpredictable, with Song Kang-ho delivering another towering performance that’s a sharp contrast from the lovable dolt he seems to initially be playing. We’re encouraged to laugh at their poverty early on, making the audience, in a way, culpable for what comes next, as to Bong Joon-ho, it’s obvious there’s nothing funny about poverty or elitism. This is a parable for our time, but beyond that, it’s also just a tremendously entertaining film.