Release Date: October 5th, 2019
Director: Bong Joon-Ho | MPAA Rating: R | LeavittLens Rating: 9.5/10
There are few films whose title is able to reference not only important themes within the context of the story, but also turn into a reflexive commentary on the audience experience itself. Not only does Bong Joon-Ho’s Best Picture winner Parasite deal with numerous parasitical things within its story; it also worms its way onto the viewer’s psyche, sticking with them long after the closing credits have rolled.
The story immediately introduces us to the Kim family, led by father Ki-Taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin). The Kims reside in a mostly underground apartment in a slum in South Korea, with only a sliver of a window allowing a minuscule amount of light in. They are forced to fold pizza boxes for income, search to the farthest reaches of their apartment just to steal a smidge of the neighbor’s WiFi, and even resort to breathing in fumigation so that the bugs that have infested their home die. This sort of poverty is the norm for the family, but soon a glimmer of hope shines into their life, akin to the sunlight let in by their small window. The family’s son Ki-Woo (played by Choi Woo-shik) is given the opportunity to pose as a university-educated tutor for the Parks, a wealthy family whose immaculate home sits grandly in the midst of the city. His sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), helps him to forge a diploma, and he suddenly lies his way into a well-paying job through false qualifications. Soon, Ki-Woo begins to realize that Park family has other vacancies in their service roles, vacancies that could be filled by the rest of his family members. So the Kims decide to expand upon Ki-Woo’s initial lie, moving their way into the Park home through terrific acting and scheming. This continues to escalate, with twists and turns entirely unexpected and shocking, bringing both a brash black humor and a striking level of horror to the audience at once. Much of this genre-blending, laugh-one-minute-and-gasp-the-next style is reminiscent of Bong Joon-Ho’s American contemporary, Jordan Peele, whose excellent introduction into feature-length filmmaking (with both Get Out and Us) has worked similarly potent themes on classism and race relations into unique, boundary-breaking movies.
At first glance it seems that the film’s parasite is obvious: the Kim family is attaching itself to the Park family, sucking benefits from them through manipulative behavior. Yet through effective multi-layered filmmaking, we come to the shocking realization that parasites are everywhere. This is perhaps what makes the film so effective – it maintains a balanced narrative throughout, refraining from stepping onto its own self-created soapboax and instead working to tell it like it is. It refrains from obvious hyperbole; its metaphors are found less in over-the-top creatures or preachy agendas (like Bong’s previous–and more obvious–Okja) and more in the people of the world, rooted viscerally in a sewage riddled subterranean apartment and an architectural wonder of a home. Since people are complex, there is no black and white (or rich and poor), no perfectly justified party. Each line drawn is quite crooked, and each crooked line goes its direction out of misguided motivation.
This speaks to the most egregious parasite of all, perhaps because it is the most subtle. No person is singularly responsible, no party particularly guilty here. Instead, it is an idea that attaches itself to every person and sucks the life from them: the idolatry of wealth. Indeed, everyone in the film is bent on finding comfort and happiness through worldly accomplishment. Thus they work, at points successfully and at other points miserably, to either maintain or obtain a constantly fleeting satisfaction from their social location. This is communicated through masterful shot construction (stairs are used constantly to communicate subtly to us), compelling writing (language like “crossing the line” and discussions about what it is like to be “rich” and “poor”), and deep imagery (the smell of the Kim family and the scholar stone introduced early in the film). Each part of this film speaks to every level of the social ladder, and in turn to every level of our human experience, turning a mirror towards the audience to identify the things that have infected our minds and our lives. Because in a world where parasites are everywhere, we must come to the hard and true realization: there are parasites in us.