Credit: Variety

Graham Peacock

Bong Joon-ho hits the peak of his career with a landmark cinematic achievement.

Parasite opens in the dark, crammed basement which the Kim family calls home.  Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and his sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park), scurry around the home, waving their phones into every crevice looking for a free Wi-fi signal before finding one just above the toilet.  Their parents, played by Sing Kang-ho and Chang Hyae Jin, sit in the claustrophobic living-room and fold empty pizza boxes — the closest thing any of the family has to a paying job. A drunk man urinates outside their home; a gardener sprays pesticide through the basement windows, filling the room with a green gas that nearly suffocates the family inside.  They think to close the vents but stop — at least it will fix their bug infestation.

Hope arrives when Ki-woo’s wealthy, university-educated friend arrives with a job opportunity for him.  The friend is about to embark on a year abroad and needs someone to take over his role as English tutor for the daughter of the affluent Parks family.  After forging university documents, Ki-woo arrives at the house and is instantly hired by the well-meaning yet naive matriarch of the family, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong).  Their mansion is worlds apart from the basement that the Kims calls home: it is at once luxurious yet cold, minimalist yet sprawling. As the Kim family begins their infiltration into the lives of their employers, a story about the corrupting influence of money and the ends to which those without will go to achieve it unfolds with volatile momentum. 

Parasite has dominated almost every end-of-year best picture list, walked away with the coveted Palme D’or at Cannes, and blitzed the Oscars in spectacular fashion (winning four of the most coveted awards), and it won’t take long for audiences to work out why.  The film balances scathing social commentary and high-stakes tension with cutting dark humour, all without compromising the cool, stylish surface which director Bong Joon-Ho orchestrates so effortlessly. To give away any of the intelligent plot twists would detract from the magic of the film, but audiences will be enthralled and disturbed by the many chaotic turns the narrative takes.

Parasite is a frustratingly difficult film to describe thanks to its ceaseless movement between genres and tones.  One of the film’s greatest strengths is its ability to elicit tension from the most mundane aspects of modern domestic life. An affectation in the corner of a child’s painting hints towards the Parks family’s darkest secret; a pair of underwear found in the backseat of a car sparks a chain of events which ends in carnage; the peach in a family fruit bowl is utilised in such a powerful way that it rivals its appearance in Call Me By Your Name.  But perhaps what makes the film so powerful is its refusal to vilify any of its characters. The Kims are ruthless, manipulative and endlessly deceitful, yet their only goal is to make enough money to survive.  The Parks, on the other hand, are gullible and complacent, yet it is clear they’re good people who’ve been corrupted by their vast wealth. The real villain in Parasite is the late-capitalist society it’s set in, which pits humanity against itself in the name of its own self-perpetuation, often resulting in brutal, degrading consequences — it’s the perfect film for our times.

In regard to the meaning behind the title, at first it seems clear that the Kims are the parasites: living in squalor, attaching themselves like leeches to the Parks in order to drain from them all the money they can.  But, then again, perhaps the parasites are the rich people in society, such as the Parks, who prey on the needy to carry out their menial tasks before throwing them away when they’re no longer useful. This is just one of the many metaphors in Parasite which kept the film in my mind long after I left the cinema.  But don’t let this emphasis on social commentary let you believe the film isn’t enjoyable.  It’s wildly entertaining from start to finish, bolstered by incredible performances and a sharp script that never gets bogged down by the heavy symbolism and satire.

The most exciting thing about Parasite’s success, though, is the enthusiasm it is generating around international cinema.  When collecting his award for Best Foreign-Language Film at this year’s Golden Globes, director Bong Joon-Ho jibed to the predominately white, English-speaking audience: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”.  It was a bold and necessary remark that we English-speaking audiences can’t be reminded of enough. Despite being set in South Korea, the characters of Parasite will be instantly recognisable to all audiences regardless of where they come from. And during a time when we’re subjected to an onslaught of mediocre English-language films, if any movie convinces you to rise above that one-inch wall, please, let it be this one.


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