Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is the story of a poor family infiltrating a rich one. It starts with the poor son, Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik). He’s friends with the rich family’s tutor, Min (Seo-Joon Park, who starred in the MMA/Possession film The Divine Fury). Min is going to study abroad, but he’s in love with the rich family’s fifteen-year-old Park Da-Hye (Jung Ziso), telling Ki-woo that “When she enters university, I’ll officially ask her out.” He doesn’t trust anyone from University, so he recommends his friend Ki-Woo to take over as her tutor.
Ki-Woo’s sister Kim Ki-Jung (Park So Dam) forges him a diploma (He explains to his father that he intends to go to that university, “I just printed out the document a bit early.”) and he’s in business, teaching Da-Hye English. The grift starts there. Slowly, the poor family insinuates into the rich one, finding increasingly creative ways to incapacitate the current staff so they can take their place.
It’s never clear which family is the titular parasite. The Kim family is literally taking resources from the Park’s, milking them for money for various jobs. On the other hand as Bong points out in the Blu-ray extras Q&A, the Parks are incapable of completing even the simplest of household tasks on their own. The Park matriarch Yeon-Kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong) immediately renames Ki-woo “Kevin,” exercising ownership of him. The rich family literally lives off the labor of the poor they’re exploiting.
The commentary on what the poor need to do to survive is even more incisive. The series of scenes where Ki-Woo and Da-Hye worm their way into work are hilarious on the surface, but have so many layers. For each position that they fill, they need to manipulate, to forge, and to defraud. To secure jobs for their parents, they need to force out others. A lesser film would forget about the first driver and housekeeper, but the characters in Parasite remember them, reflecting on what they might be doing now. It’s a dog eat dog world. As Bong puts it in the FantasticFest Q&A in the Blu-ray’s extras, “We all live in this one big nation of capitalism.”
The film visually represents these differences with staircases. To get to the rich house—which was designed by a massively famous architect, sitting gated off from the city street, gazing into an impossible backyard forest—the poor family needs to go up ridiculously long staircase after staircase. On the way home, they go back down, all the way to their sub-basement apartment, a simple and clear way to represent the upper- versus lower- class dynamic the film is railing against.
The film uses a number of other metaphors, while also mocking the idea of metaphors. Early on, Ki-woo looks at a child’s painting and guesses it’s a chimpanzee. Yeon-kyo corrects him, saying it’s a self-portrait. Ki-woo replies, “Wow. This is so metaphorical.” The idea is mocked again, later, but the film still employs different metaphors. When Min comes to offer Ki-woo a job, he brings him a stone that will supposedly bring wealth. Pay attention to what Ki-woo does with that stone later on while remembering that the film explicitly stated that it’s a symbol of wealth.
Parasite sends mixed messages in that way, which makes the film feel more textured. Bong’s Snowpiercer had a more ham-fisted visual metaphor, with the poor being forced to the back of the train while the rich lived in luxury at the front. By self-reflexively questioning the idea of metaphors, challenging their usefulness while still using them, Parasite makes viewers think twice about everything.
The screenplay, written by Bong and Jin Won Han, is excellent in other ways too. It’s chock full of surprises, which I can’t talk about any more here without spoiling the film. Suffice to say, they’re amazing. It’s also very well structured, and manages to successfully switch genres every act, going from comedy to [redacted] and veering into [redacted] without ever feeling like a tonal clash. It’s the work of a virtuoso filmmaker.
And of course—I haven’t said it enough in all of this talk about metaphors, symbols and meaning—Parasite is fun as hell. The opening is hilarious. The film will take you through a full-spectrum of emotions from there. More than anything else, when I watched this movie in theaters and at home, I felt a tremendous sense of joy. It’s not a happy film, but it’s such a pleasure to watch a master work, especially one that’s not afraid to crack jokes.
Parasite has rightfully been racking up awards—Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes, Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. It’s still in theaters thanks to the awards season buzz. Check it out there, then you won’t need me to convince you that this is one you need to own.
Wicked Rating – 10/10
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho, Jin Won Han,
Stars: Choi Woo Shik, Seo-Joon Park, Jung Ziso, Park So Dam, Cho Yeo Jeong
Release: January 28, 2020 (Blu-ray DVD)
Studio/Production Co: Barunson E&A, CJ E&M Film Financing & Investment Entertainment & Comics, CJ Entertainment, TMS Comics, TMS Entertainment
Language: Korean, English