Social satires are tricky business. Their primary job is to skewer deeply seated social stigmas, but rarely are they funny. Most directors know only one way to get the message across: ram the idea into your head. It takes an informed storyteller to milk it differently. The gold standard of any satire is the ability to turn the camera inwards at the audience making them aware they have been essentially laughing at themselves for two hours. Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winner Parasite ticks all the boxes and it is a biting social satire of lurid lengths and vivid highs.
The Kims live in a dinghy sub-basement dwelling and work odd jobs to make ends meet. Then Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), the eldest son, is asked to fake his credentials to take over his friend’s job as a tuition teacher. His student Da-hye (Jung Ji-so) is the daughter of a wealthy man, Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyun). Soon, Ki-woo manages to hoodwink Mrs Park (Jo Yeo-jeong) into employing his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) as a child psychologist for Mrs Park’s hyperactive young son. Before long, the father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Choong-sook (Jang Hye-jin) also come under the employ of the Parks without the Parks realising that they are all related. All this will set in motion a series of events that will change the fortunes of both families.
This is a return to form for Bong after his dalliance with Hollywood (Snowpiercer and Okja) which didn’t yield great results in my opinion. His Korean outputs fare far better. Bong’s movies defy easy pigeonholing. Saying The Host (2006) is a monster movie is conveniently forgetting it is a tragically funny study of a dysfunctional family and a fierce critique of society’s blatant environmental carelessness. Classifying Memories of Murder (2003) under the mystery tag is sweeping its searing tone of an entire nation’s ineptitude and apathy under the carpet. Parasite pulls off a high-wire act of balancing so many societal elements without diminishing the gravity of the situation.
When the movie opens, the two siblings of the Kim family are trying to access the wifi of their above neighbours who have finally set a password to stop the leech-ers. Yes, there are freeloaders in every sense of the word, but they are our freeloaders. The Kims are lovable grifters, thinking that society owes them one. They feel justified in doing shoddy work even if it’s an odd job like folding pizza boxes. A warped sense of justice and entitlement binds them and they feel they are totally justified to break the rules to survive.
Bong’s first grand feat here is making us laugh at them and in so doing at ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I am pretty sure we all know people like them albeit in a smidgen sort of way. The Kims aren’t portrayed as punching bags to be cut down at will. There is a certain likeable quality they possessed that you wish existed in your family. Just look at how the dad comment on Ki-jung’s photoshop forgery skills and feel the admiration course through the family members’ veins. Before long, you won’t be laughing at them; you will be laughing with them.
The tone is deftly handled throughout the first act and I found myself sinking comfortably into my seat laughing at the absurdity of it all. I thought I have finally figured out the track the movie is taking. Then with a doorbell in the dead of a rainy night, everything changes. I am going to do you a favour by keeping my mouth shut about the plot from this moment on.
Parasite is one wicked bridge linking two ends of the wealth divide. Bong successfully makes us see the issue from both sides and our sympathies continue to waver from end to end. Most directors will make us choose sides and elicit hate. Not here, Bong makes us pity them. He keeps the darkly comic perversities and desperate acts coming at such a brisk pace that you barely realise it has shifted gears.
The cinematography is stunning, bringing forth the stark juxtaposition of the level of both parties’ station. I have a feeling a huge amount of the budget went into the construction of the Parks’ mansion. The minimalistic magnificence is at once cold but arresting. The intruding camera weaves through the labyrinth like it was capturing the skeletal remains of a blue whale.
Everything culminates in a furious climax where you will start to ponder who deserves to live and die. Perhaps the only weak spot is the rushed falling action where Bong ties up all the loose ends in a brisk clip, but it’s a good thing Bong saves one more gut punch right in the end that brings everything to a lyrical closure. It is not quite a hopeful end which would be patronising, but more of a delusional bent on everything.
Bong has crafted a cynical treatise on the moral and ethical decline of a modern Korean society and a cautionary tale of the love for money. Heck! I think it is an exact mirror image of my Singaporean society who also takes no prisoners. These days working hard doesn’t necessarily equate to eventual success anymore. Parasite feels like the middle finger to our current state of affairs.
Rating: 5 / 5
Written by Daniel Chiam.