“Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.” At least not yet.
Against the real-life backdrop of South Korea’s shrinking middle class, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite tells the story of the Kim family as they con their way from rags to riches. The film depicts a modern socio-economic world that feels like a zero-sum game of winners and losers, predator and prey, parasite and host. In doing so, it poignantly strikes a nerve and leaves us feeling overwhelmed, but in a good way.
The Kim family is poor. When the neighbours secure their WiFi with a password, the Kims’s son, Woo-sik Choi, grifts a signal from the coffee shop above their home by pressing his cell phone along the ceiling. The family refrains from closing the basement windows to their sub-street level apartment while a city exterminator sprays pesticide – an opportunity for free fumigation to combat their bug problem. They rely on folding pizza boxes to make ends meet, and even that isn’t going very well.
Despite making the best of it, the indignity of the Kim family’s station takes its toll on them. When a well-dressed friend comes to visit, they revere the confidence he wields. When the friend offers Woo-sik Choi a gig tutoring the teenage daughter of the well-to-do Park family, he leaps at the chance.
In the hapless Mrs. Park, Woo-sik Choi sees an opportunity for the whole family. Before long, they have concocted a Machiavellian scheme to supplant every staff position within the Park’s household. The Kims’ ploys are so clever, and the Parks so gullible in their susceptibility to them, that it seems as though Bong is making a statement: the hunger of poverty drives people, and the comforts of wealth pacify them.
Not that the satire of Parasite is wholly serious. The entirety of the Kim’s scheme is unfurled in dark humour and intentional melodrama. In one scene, the patriarch of the Kim family, Kang-ho Song, acts to get rid of the housekeeper by convincing Mrs. Park that she has tuberculosis, the ruse intricately comes together in a montage of cuts and slow motion shots that build along with an orchestral crescendo. When it the scene climaxes, with Mr. Kim holding up a tissue that he has squirted with hot sauce to look like blood, it is clear that the elaboration is tongue-in-cheek by design.
The first half of Parasite is great fun, and the whole movie is beautifully shot with with a symbolism that mirrors the cultural divide between the two families. This is Bong’s most accessible film to date, and surprisingly, it might also be his most visceral. Like his 2013 film Snowpiercer, Parasite tackles class and the relationship between the rich and the poor. Parasite dispenses with the sci-fi disguise of a dystopian future and tackles the subject head on. Accordingly, the stakes in Parasite feel much higher.
Eventually, the Kims’ machinations are successful. When the Parks vacate their home for a holiday, the Kims take over, finally enjoying a taste of the high life. Drunk on stolen whiskey and their own sense of triumph, they are caught haphazardly ruminating on what they have actually accomplished. As Kang-ho Song boasts about his family’s “beautiful new home”, his wife can’t help but point out that he would flee like a cockroach if Mr. Park walked in. Somehow, their success has only served to highlight how low they still are.
Upon this realisation the mood of the film changes. The satire becomes symbolism, the dark humour becomes suspenseful thriller, and the latent feelings of the family’s indignation boil to the surface. To ruin any of the twists and turns would do a disservice to the fist-clenching suspense that the movie has to offer. But suffice to say that Parasite has a way of working its way into you without you realising it. The story seems so close to our own world that we find it difficult to decide whose side we are on – everyone seems to be getting something that they don’t deserve. The lingering effect will leave you feeling heavy, weighted down with compassion for both families while simultaneously trying to navigate the morality of late stage capitalism.
Parasite is in US cinemas on 11th October and in UK Cinemas February 2020