The social stratum is a bloody funny thing. The way in which some people become indoctrinated to feel zero empathy for those who differ socioeconomically, despite being fundamentally indistinguishable as human beings, is an unsettling concept, and one that has influenced works of art that range from mockingly irreverent to downright depressing. Acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s latest offering Parasite, with its intelligent, genre-bending riffs on snobbery, greed and moral ambiguity, is an examination of that very stratum and has been taking the film word by a furious storm. Its reputation is a well-deserved one.
The Kim family are living a life of destitution and desperation in a cramped basement-apartment in a South Korean suburb. Barely scraping a living through low-paying endeavours such as assembling boxes for a local pizza delivery company, they conduct dinnertime prayers in thanks for things like obtaining a decent Wi-Fi connection and getting a meagre bump in their remunerations for odd jobs. In spite of their shitty lot, the Kims are a reasonably functional and loving family unit, and their lack of prospects betray an erudition and shrewdness that beautifully lampoons the stereotype of lower-class individuals having poor intellect. It also places the audience in something of an emotional conundrum, as it is easy to care about these people, even though they’re rather dangerous when all is said and done.
The family’s luck begins to look up a little when son Ki-woo is asked to step in as an English tutor on behalf of his friend Min-hyuk, who is leaving to study abroad. The pupil is Da-hye, the shy daughter of the opulent Park family, and Min-hyuk trusts only Ki-woo to sufficiently fill his shoes. Combining their respective talents for acting and forgery, the Kim clan manufacture the prerequisite documents and academic demeanour Ki-woo will need to ingratiate himself with the Parks, and the plan is a success. As he starts to bring home big bacon from his sessions with Da-hye, Ki-woo notices just how reliant the Park family are on ‘the help’ to accomplish basic daily necessities, and considering his parents and sister are still out of work, an ingenious plan takes form in his mind. And at this point, I really can’t provide any more exposition as the narrative turn is predicated on viewing the picture with as little knowledge as possible.
The film examines the polar ends of the class system with sardonic gusto, The Kims having cultivated an aptitude for cons & scams via having no other recourse to feed, clothe or shelter themselves, and the Parks ludicrous wealth and want for nothing rendering them gullible and complacent. Despite the title, the Kim family operate more like a family of predators than typical parasites, though it is born of pragmatism as opposed to malevolence. They think on their feet in such a way that would inspire applause were it not for the deceit that it is facilitating, and the pathos surrounding that very deceit is toyed with in the most compelling fashion. Despite being ‘nice’, in a sense, the Parks undoubtedly have a superiority complex, and it is difficult not to be frustrated when they speak of their disdain for employees who ‘cross the line’, meaning a failure to maintain a strict formality with their ‘betters’ at all times. It is an infuriatingly nonchalant arrogance, and as a viewer, I surveyed the hoodwinking they were being subjected to and said ‘Ah, to hell with you, Mr. & Mrs Shit-Don’t-Stink’ at least a couple of times. Importantly, Parasite is a term of multiple purpose here. Poor, cunning and leeching off wealth or rich, lazy and leeching off labour, what is the fundamental difference at the end of the day?
The picture also introduced me to the concept of Hell Joseon, a satirical notion that depicts South Korea as an unjust society that is apathetic toward grinding poverty, rampant social and economic inequality, mass unemployment and poor treatment of workers. It would be accurate to say that Parasite utilises this societal lens, but it is never in a manner that feels designed to tug on the audience’s heartstrings. Despite their poverty, the Kims maintain an incredibly optimistic and breezy outlook on life, finding seemingly insignificant things and events to be ripe for humour and gratitude, and never collapsing from knockbacks. There is something hilarious and endearing in watching father Ki-taek grumpily awaken on the floor, eating sliced bread straight from the bag, and relishing in the fact that the basement windows are open when a fumigator happens past, as they can now have their bug infestation taken care of for free. It is in immensely stark contrast to the Parks, who approach almost every problem with an irritatingly histrionic incredulity and smugness, truly a case of the old adage of not knowing how good one has it.
As with much of Bong’s work, Parasite brilliantly works around sudden shifts in tone, great comedic dialogue and poignant moments of familial bonding interrupted by twists and turns that are fraught with suspense and would be at home in the most shocking of thrillers. You will laugh and smile, you will shout at the screen, you will get the shit scared out of you. Without equivocation, it has one of the most consistently intelligent scripts that I’ve come across in a very long time, and ranks with other East Asian millennial classics such as Oldboy and Pieta in its visual elegance and capacity to develop plot in an idiosyncratically batshit and superb way that is seldom seen in Western cinema. The Oscars in the bag were well deserved by this one, and if I were you I’d get your ass on seeing it right this instant.