Stefanos Yoo-Min Florakis
A fresh depiction of the social glass gap, through dark comedy and shocking thrills which need no translation to non-Korean speakers.
In the past two decades, South Korea has become one of the dark horses of contemporary cinema. From small international hits like My Sassy Girl and Joint Security Area, to mega cult /festival darlings like Oldboy and Burning. Directors such as Park Chan-Wook, Lee Chang-Dong, Kim Jee-Woon, and Na Hong-Jin have created a movement of cinema, most recently called: Korean New Wave Cinema. But there is no other filmmaker that has made a more foundational stamp into that movement than Bong Joon-Ho.
Bong has been a staple when bringing Korean Cinema into the conversation between cinephiles, since the release of his 2003 crime thriller Memories of Murder, followed with the 2006 horror satire The Host and the 2009 mystery drama, Mother. He even has stepped out of the comforts of his native language, with 2013's Snowpiercer, a graphic novel adaptation with Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. 2017 even saw him work on the Netflix production, Okja with Jake Gyllenhaal and (again) Tilda Swinton.
All his films are specimens of a visionary director, always thinking outside the box, and always with either a direct comment towards a certain issue or a vaguer and complex lesson that simple words cannot describe. He's certainly not a director that compromises his vision in order to make a more approachable film for everyone. But here comes a film that brings all of Bong’s attributes together and being a ride that almost everyone can find enjoyment out of. This is Parasite.
Since the film’s victory at last year’s Cannes Film Festival with the esteemed Palm D’Or (a unanimous vote from the jury Parasite was projected to not only be the first Korean film to be nominated for an Oscar for International Feature Film but also the much-coveted Best Picture category, going on to win both. Media outlets were ill-prepared for how beloved it would be by Hollywood industry members; getting attention from various award circles on major guilds (the cast won the Best Ensemble Award at the SAG Awards), winning two Baftas out of four nominations (Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Not in the English Language) and winning four of its six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Director.
The film follows the Kim family, a lower-class household that tries to infiltrate itself into the upper-class residence of the Park family, by making plans to be employed as servants at any cost. Each member of the Kim family is appointed with a different identity and backstory, to avoid any suspicion of a joint operation against the Parks.
Bong created a rollercoaster of genres that mixes comedy, satire, drama, thrill, and a bit of horror. True to his signature style, he presents a world that goes beyond the basic senses of a typical film and gets the audience questioning the Kims, the Parks and even themselves.
On the surface, Parasite seems like a dark satire on the class division between the low and high social classes. But as the film progresses, it becomes something more difficult to describe, a very real showcase of real people in unreal situations.
The film starts (and stays primarily) on the Kim family, which consists of Ki-Woo (the son), Ki-Jung (the daughter), Chung-Sook (the mother), and Ki-Taek (the father). They live in a semi-ground floor, with the main window facing the street, halfway below the world, but not quite. All of them are unemployed due to several different reasons, either from their own misdoing or just unfortunate circumstances.
The family barely has enough money for food, and even steal their neighbour’s Wi-Fi, until, Ki-Woon, through the help of an old friend, gets a job as an English tutor to the daughter of the Park family. From then on, Ki-Woon manages to make a plot to bring each member of his family into the Park luxurious modern house one-by-one. That proves easier than thought due to the gullibility of the rich household, especially its matriarch, Yeon-Kyo.
The Kims’ actions could be deemed selfish and cruel, but because of their social and financial status, there is compassion and to some level understanding. As the film progresses, the motives and image of the family start to blur by becoming not the typical protagonists. Even the Parks, in the beginning, are seen as naïve and over-privileged (which they are) being also cruel and insensible, but innocent none the less.
At the mid-point of the film, the conversation on class and the dehumanization of wealth turns into a critique of the overall unchangeable system itself. None of the families are bad or good, they are just people that are part of a gear of a society that is merciless to either one. There are no villains or heroes, just people who are trying to survive in their own worlds.
It is truly a beautifully unique and tragic study from Director Bong, bringing everything we know on cinematic language and narrative structure to a story that seems both contemporary and eternal. Praises can continue to its production design, creating a visual narrative on its own, to its orchestrated editing, with a montage by the end of the second act that could be described as a concerto of exposition and plot, to the both realistic and dream/nightmare-like cinematography.
But no more high praise can enrich the overall brilliant work of the whole cast. Backed with a great script, each character was fully realized and personal, with tour-de-force performances from Cho Yeo-Jeong, Lee Jung-Eun, and Bong’s muse, Song Kang-Ho as the Kim patriarch. A true crime that neither of the film Academies have nominated any member of the cast.
As Bong said during his acceptance speech for winning the Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barriers of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
This is one of my favourite films of the decade, and definitely my favourite of 2019, and if there was a foreign language film to finally win the Oscar for Best Picture, then it is no surprise Parasite is the one.