Bong Joon Ho’s Buzzy Drama on Family, Money and Violence
DIRECTOR: BONG JOON HO/2019
You might have heard it’s best to know as little as possible about Parasite before seeing it. While it can’t be spoiled in the same way as something like murder mystery Knives Out, I’m glad I only knew a few details of this unusual story. Because of that, I’m making this a Choose Your Own Adventure review. Feel free to read everything now, or if you’d prefer to stay in the dark, skip the paragraphs with plot details and come back after watching the film.
(Plot details!) For those of you whose curiosity can’t wait to be satisfied, Parasite follows Kim Ki-Taek (Song Kang Ho), his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin), and their children Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) and Ki-jung (Park So Dam). They live in a semi-basement apartment in Seoul, finding odd jobs and pooling money to get food on the table. When a friend recommends Ki-woo as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family, they find their first steady income in some time. Soon Ki-woo recommends Ki-jung as an art tutor, who recommends Ki-Taek as a chauffer, who recommends Chung-sook as a housekeeper. The only problem? They’ve faked any degrees and experience needed for these jobs. Only time will tell how long they can keep up the charade, especially as they become more involved with the Parks’ parents, two children, and housekeeper. (End plot details.)
Like Knives Out and Ready or Not, Parasite focuses on what happens when the working class enters the world of the rich and when family, money, and violence intersect. Don’t worry that you’ve seen this film already, though. Knives Out lived for its laughs, and Ready or Not based its narrative in horror, but Parasite finds its heart in character drama. While that means it’s the least “fun” of the three, it handles its story with the most finesse.
(Plot details!) Bong Joon Ho’s last two films, Okja and Snowpiercer, dealt with similar themes but wore their opinions on their sleeves. (For all its merits, Okja felt preachy at times.) Parasite is not a fable or an adventure, which makes any message secondary to understanding the two families. It never asks for sympathy for the Kim family when you see their financial hardships or for the Park family when they fall into another trap. It never asks you to judge the Kims when their plot escalates beyond white lies or for the Parks when they make snide comments about the lower classes. (End plot details.)
Because the camera is a neutral observer, Parasite feels more like literature than those other films; to American audiences, almost a Southern Gothic. Like William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, Joon Ho sets his characters in a community dependent on socioeconomic inequality. They abide by their class roles in a historic, majestic home with a delicate, classical score to match. But if you’ve read “A Rose for Emily” or “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” you know that’s only true until it isn’t. The wealthy’s tragic flaw comes in their pride, while the poor find theirs in their want; the inevitable conflict comes when they collide.
(Plot details!) A macabre twist jolts us out of that elegant façade. What we thought was an exposé on income inequality becomes an investigation into how far people will go to have just a little bit more. The score takes a modern turn, and the greenish tint coloring every frame of the film—is that the color of money? Of jealousy? Perhaps a skewed tint of the screens our characters are so dependent on? (End plot details.)
The only thing this film requires of you is empathy. Like Faulkner’s Emily or O’Connor’s Grandmother, neither family stops being human no matter how selfish they grow or how tense the plot becomes. With the help of a strong ensemble cast, this makes Parasite Joon Ho’s greatest accomplishment yet.