Joon-ho Bong has nothing to hide. The prolific Korean director was never one to settle on a style or genre, over a thorough thematic consistency. He has done crime dramas (Memories of murder), monster movies before it was cool (The Host), dystopian sci-fi action flicks (Snowpiercer), utopian sci-fi adventure romps (Okja), thrillers (Mother), and even a comedy with his first film Barking dogs never die. I wouldn’t be surprised if his next project was a musical teen romcom, and still I would be excited to see how that would turn out to be. Terrific, I’m sure, definitely viciously alert of the shortcomings of capitalism.
Whatever the vehicle, the connecting thread in his oeuvre has always been this unapologetic lack of trust for inhumanity of the free market, progress or western society in general. This shouldn’t come as surprise, but in case there is anyone out there that has missed any point he tried to make so far, Bong delivers his most straightforward film – so caustic, so acid, so intensely anti-capitalist, it’s not even a cautionary tale. Parasite is distilled anger in celluloid.
Ki-taek’s (frequent Bong collaborator Kang-ho So) family are so poor they live in a unit literally below the bottom of society. The wi-fi is stolen from the upstairs neighbour and the only way they can control the cockroach infestation is to open the windows when the council fumigator is cleaning the streets, regardless of whether the family is inside or not. They do what they can to survive, except moan about it.
When the son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), is offered the opportunity to tutor the daughter of a rich family, he sees a way of life so enticing he wants to invite his family in. Thus begins the plan to get every member of the family, including the mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) and sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) to work for the Park’s in any way, shape or form, so affluent they are they could support another family without even knowing it.
Neither the Park’s, nor Ki-taek’s family, are stereotypes of rich and poor, because that would be a disservice to the point Bong is driving across. Instead it’s the circumstances that led to this social gap, and the system that allowed it to happen, that is predictable – the Park’s aren’t to blame, they go about their comfortable lives unaware of the privilege they strive in, their ignorance is almost their innocence. In one meaningful scene Ki-taek finds out how the lights in corridor turn when Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) arrives home, a revelation so tragic I wouldn’t dare to spoil it for anyone.
For the first half Parasite pretends to amuse its audience. Bong shoots the scenes the way his anti-heroes see them, as opportunities instead of tragic predicaments. The aforementioned fumigation scene is so dry and grotesque it’s almost a comedy, at least until you contextualise it to their brutal socio-economic situation. It’s at the half way point that Bong decides to pull the proverbial rug from under both the audience and the family’s feet. In a moment of apparent celebration, and in what could be a moment for them to take their plan several steps too far, the old housekeeper (Jeong-eun Lee) returns. What comes next may be the best written set piece of the year, so complex and unexpected I doubt even Tarantino has the chops to top this one off.
From the moment the twist hits, the film is brutal, violent, thrilling and completely unpredictable. And as it steers towards the end, it becomes progressively darker. To reach the point of an ending so purposefully devoid of hope it was hard to face the real world for a while after it.
Parasite’s metaphors aren’t cheap but are still easy to understand. Bong is, above all, an intelligent and balanced entertainer. He adds small delicious details to each scene that may resonate later as part of the plot, or as defining moments to his characters, or as layers to the entire philosophical context. And all is wrapped in pure enjoyable entertainment. Funny, angry, brutal, cringing, not a single ounce of boredom or wasted film for a little over two hours.
If this doesn’t sell his message, nothing will.
Joon-ho Bong has outdone himself. Parasite deservedly won the Cannes Palm d’Or against the likes of Almodóvar, Tarantino and Ken Loach. So well written, that second half alone will be dissected in the screenwriting books of the future.
This one’s a masterpiece.