The Kim family is doomed. Doomed to their run-down semi-basement, where they leave the windows open to welcome in public fumigation gas, the only affordable way to decontaminate their insect-filled home. Doomed to tossing bottles of water on homeless people who think their ramshackle residence is a public restroom. Doomed to climb high, huddled together, in their already cramped bathroom, the only place they can get Wi-Fi — a necessity for four people desperately looking for work. All the Kims have been doing for money is folding pizza boxes and they can’t even do that correctly.
Out of the blue, son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) hears what may be the only good news this family has ever received: a friend of his is soon to begin studying abroad, leaving the wealthy Park family without a tutor for their daughter. He’s recommending Ki-woo for the job.
This seems to be where the plot begins, but it’s not. That would be far too simple for Parasite.
It’s as though the first hour of Parasite is spent neatly placing a rug underneath you and halfway through, with a sudden onset of thrilling music and a new location in the film unearthed, Parasite violently rips it out from under you with one swift motion.
This film is subtle in its set-ups and makes even the smallest details important: rocks, fruits, the recurring motif of water. Director Bong Joon-ho sets up dominos and you only notice they’re there when they come crashing down.
By the halfway mark, things are going too perfectly for the Kims. The first half of this film leaves you with an unshakeable feeling that this is all leading up to something big, that something colossal is bound to happen, yet when it does, you don’t expect what it is. Then, it happens again; you would’ve never expected that, either. The film’s explosive climax feels out of left field even after you watch the two hours that set up for it.
Spending increasingly more time with the Parks as the sole breadwinner of the family, Ki-woo learns that their hyperactive son is artistic but deeply traumatized from an encounter with what he believed to be a ghost. Ki-woo recommends them a young professional art therapist.
Enter Jessica — although, her name’s not really Jessica, it’s Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) and she’s actually just Ki-woo’s sister, uneducated in everything but the art of forgery. “I googled ‘art therapy’ and ad-libbed the rest,” she says as confidently as she breezes around the Park family home.
Soon, they get the Parks’ driver fired and replaced with their father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). Their final sacrifice is the housekeeper who took up residency at the household long before the Parks did.
Once their mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) steps in as the new housekeeper, the Kims are living the high life. The family makes a mess of themselves in the spacious living room, drunkenly sprawled out and basking in luxury, pretending that they, too, could somehow, someday have something more than a semi-basement to their name. But they know the truth and they all admit it: it’s just pretend.
Bong never allows the audience to gawk at the Kims. The camera casts them in a sympathetic glow; it forces the audience’s eyes to align with theirs even as they’re trapped in tight spots. We’re always right there knee-deep in squalor and deceit with them. They’re true antiheroes, one of whom borders on sociopathy, committing a long con to an oblivious family — yet, we’re rooting for them.
That’s because they’re contrasted with the people pushing them down the stairs: the Parks, a Mr. (Lee Sun-kyun) who is condescending with class and a Mrs. (Cho Yeo-jeong) whose blinding naivety sets the events of the film in motion. The purpose of this film is being screamed at you the moment the first of many snide comments about the scent of poor people slip from a Park’s mouth.
Stairs are the key to this film, literally and metaphorically. The Kims are victims of circumstance and, even for all their lying and corruption, they are never not painted as such. They are down many levels in society and perpetually reminded of this, yet even they still push aside those even lower than them.
The tragedy within this film is how often we’re reminded the Kims are being done an injustice quite simply by their existence: Ki-jeong, seemingly adept at everything she attempts to do, is told she’d fit in with ease living in the Parks’ sprawling mansion. But, she doesn’t see this as a compliment; she laughs, as she knows the closest she’ll get is if the Parks insist she work overtime.
Early on, Chung-sook jokes with the children that if the Parks were to walk in and catch Ki-taek in a questionable spot, as brave as he pretends to be, he would scurry away much like the cockroaches he regularly flicks away in their derelict home. Closer to the end, Ki-taek is quick to hide when the Parks unexpectedly come home early, perfectly still under a table except for the cogs turning in his mind. He’s much like one of the cockroaches, quick to panic and run, to be flicked away far off into the distance, since he’s much unwanted by those of a higher calibre. This is only portrayed in facial expressions from Song, who is at the top of his acting game yet matched by just about every other actor in the film.
If Bong Joon-ho is a master of mutating established genres, of intertwining them to create something equal parts hilarious and gut-wrenching, all while subverting the audience’s expectations, Parasite is his crowning achievement. It’s been touted as a “family tragicomedy”, but it’s thriller, it’s crime, it’s social satire, it’s horror and yet, somehow, the humour wedged in between all of these genres hits perfectly and it’s all piled high on top of a heavily political “eat-the-rich” foundation.
Parasite is the winner of the prestigious Cannes Palme d’Or (as well as the first Korean winner), boasting four-and-a-half to five stars across the board from critics and film fanatics alike. It’s a must-see for 2019 in film. Parasite will burrow deep within your skin and make a space for itself in your brain, clinging tight for weeks to come.