‘Parasite’: Urban comedy and suburban terror
Charlie Kenney | Friday, December 6, 2019
Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s most recent film “Parasite” is defined by contrast.
The picture opens in a cramped, trash-filled semi-basement in what is assumed to be a destitute neighborhood on Seoul’s outskirts. A family of four lives on top of one another, a dinner of processed foods and cheap beer is cherished and drunken youth unknowingly relieve themselves just outside the ceiling-adjacent kitchen windows. The feeling is jovial and carefree — the genre, if anything, comedy.
The large part of the rest of the film takes place in a visually and thematically differing environment. A well-trimmed yard with abundant sunlight replaces concrete and dim, flickering street lights. Cleanliness almost to obsession fills those places where grime, errant beer cans and cigarette butts had formerly sat. And a clean-cut, beautiful, nouveau-riche family lives in this expansive, ostensibly un-cramped space. Whatever sense of nonchalance resided in that dank semi-basement is replaced by feelings of anxiety and unease.
Such circumstances are purposeful. In “Parasite,” Joon-ho of “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” fame seeks to portray the blemishes of South Korea that have arrived alongside the economic prosperity it has recently experienced. While high-rise apartments and well-trimmed lawns have sprung up, so has — as is the case with much of the developed world — a quite sizable disparity in wealth. The film seeks to accentuate these differences and the misery that many South Koreans experience just beneath the feet of their more well-to-do neighbors.
The film primarily revolves around the economic woes of the Kim family and their clever attempts to pull themselves out of poverty. Through the help of his friend and a fair amount of forgery, Kim Ki-Woo, the youngest male in his family, attains a job as a tutor for the daughter of the quite wealthy Park family. As Ki-Woo becomes more familiar with the Parks, however, he realizes the matriarch of the household, Park Yeon-gyo, is quite gullible. A plan is then set in motion, which eventually sees Kim Ki-Woo remain the tutor of the Park family’s daughter; his sister, Kim Ki-jeong hired as the tutor of their son; his father, Kim Ki-taek fill a vacancy to be the family chauffeur; and his mother, Kim Chung-sook, becomes the family caretaker and maid.
The four members of the Kim family act as an eponymous parasite within the Park household — deriving their entire income from the wealth of one family.
The build-up to such a scenario inhabits the genre of comedy, providing comic relief as time after time the members of the Park family are oblivious to the lack of qualifications each member of the Kim family holds. Ki-jeong poses as a renowned art therapist in South Korea and Ki-woo enters into a romantic relationship with his student to only further entrench his job security.
With the Kim family constantly brushing shoulders with one another, however, it becomes harder and harder for them to conceal their secret. Suspense inevitably replaces comedy.
The main focus of the Kim family becomes avoiding detection while at the same time enjoying the spoils of their newfound wealth and environment. A night spent under the couch, a change in shampoo so they smell different or a muting of the Park’s youngest son who may suspect something.
The film almost jokes about the absurdity of class difference in South Korea before taking it more seriously. The rich are so carefree and overindulgent that it almost appears comical — until it doesn’t. To the Park family, the Kims exist as a vehicle through which they can enjoy their material well-being. Every demand of theirs has to be completed immediately, regardless of whether a devastating flood has waterlogged your basement the night before.
Wealth can certainly be enjoyed by both sides of Korean society, but wealth does not necessitate acceptance. Late in the film, Ki-woo looks down on the Park family’s backyard from a second story window. A multi-layered cake sits on a table, upwards of 20 people don outfits costing more than perhaps the entire Kim house and a cello is being played for God knows why. The tutor asks his student, “Do I fit in here?” before she responds with a hesitant affirmative — as if in private “No” would have sufficed.
Bong Joon-ho, through subtlety and shock, interweaves a cutting social commentary about class struggle into a film that inhabits a limbo between comedy and suspense. With a clever plot, “Parasite” illuminates the poverty that lives beneath the trimmed yards and expansive windows of the wealthy. Perhaps South Korea’s economic situation is slightly different from that of the rest of the world, but the film themes appeal to a global audience.
I have never viewed a film that so well evokes laughter, gasps and sympathy all at once. Typically a director is required to choose one and ensure the film revolves around it. Joon-ho, as a result of his talent, has the luxury of including all three and doing so to perfection.
Winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’or with a unanimous vote is no small feat. The quality of “Parasite” is a testament to such.