David Wallace’s review published on Letterboxd:
‘Man is the only animal which esteems itself rich in proportion to the number and voracity of its parasites.’
~ George Bernard Shaw
Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" will forever more be known as the first film not in the English-language to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, a noteworthy historical achievement long overdue for global cinema. The multi-faceted nature of the film: it confidently crystallises a variety of artistic genres and tones, appeals to a universal audience - even those adverse to reading subtitles - and envelops the core social parable at the centre of the text (as opposed to being relegated to supporting subtext) so it can be felt, realised and understood by viewers all around the world. While reading some Bernard Shaw prefaces recently, I was struck by comments he expressed, which help to define the implicit meaning of the film's ambiguous title. If I told you that the plot revolves around the dubious interaction between a wealthy nuclear family and a nuclear family residing in penury devastation, I suspect many will envisage the latter scavengers to be the parasitic trouble as they find a means to strip mine the fortunes of class members above them, by clinging to riches they do not possess rightfully. I turn to Shaw for his thoughts on the distribution of income between the proprietary class and a wage proletariat: ‘In this division the proprietary class is purely parasitic, consuming without producing... its demand for domestic servants and for luxuries of all kinds creates parasitic enterprise and employment.’ Shaw had stringent words for the faults in a capitalist society and so too can we say that Bong shares some of these complaints. Although it could be argued the pauper individuals flimflam their way to a better wage through cunning, but deceitful and merciless, strategems, this family is no less sympathetic than the family residing in proprietary luxury, who arguably leech off the production services from the lower class for their own consumption. The resulting synthesis growth lies on a scaffolding of co-dependency.
This is dependent on whether you view the transfer of money to be a fair payment between classes, a small pittance handed out to those who do a decent job without ‘crossing the line’ that invisibly prevents the mixing of two disparate economic livelihoods through an alert consciousness of class protocols. The conclusive parasitic factor in "Parasite" is the actual class system as it continues to facilitate and enable such harmful relationships between the high and low society. Such a thematic synopsis recalls the great Akira Kurosawa's "High and Low" in both title and content, a film about a kidnapping committed by a disgruntled member of the lower classes living in the slums, who attempts to bargain with the victim's affluent father for a ransom deal. In "Parasite" there are visual parallels to these concrete vertiginous differences. The Kim family live in a half-basement with a partial view to the street above, while the Parks enjoy a mansion towering above the Seoul skyline. Jonathan Romney refers to it as an ‘outrageously opulent modernist house’ and Justin Chang calls it a ‘masterwork of real-estate pornography with its vast, cavernous spaces.’ The rise upwards symbolises the sense of a snob-like privilege away from the smells of the peasantry depths. Bong includes many shots of the Kim family's patriarch ascending the flight of stairs within his own home with light sensors greeting his arrival, and this contrasts starkly with images of the Kim family once they 'unpark' themselves from the Park home, an act requiring they climb down a gargantuan number of city steps to reach their abode down so low it is level with the sewers. It is paradoxical in the way a powerful elite member like Mr. Park can simultaneously have his nose so far up in the air and yet look down on people like Mr. Kim, with a distinct unpleasant aroma confirming the need to mind the gap on the societal anomie ladder.
Many are born into an inherited heritage that will pigeonhole them with a specific lot in life, making it an easier action for a prodigal rich person to gamble away a fortune and descend into the lower class than for a hard-working, intelligent and resourceful individual to accumulate enough in wages for their skills to remove the shackles and ascend into the upper echelons of class comfort and stress-free existence. It is possible that the Park patriarch - Dong-ik (Lee Sun Gyun) - is a self-made millionaire in the technology industry but quite another matter to assume he rose from the underworld. He does mention having to ride the subway in his past, where he recalls a ghastly scent associated with the commoners, so evidently he was not born into immediate wealth. Bong's film, however, chiefly aligns us with the four members of the Kim family from the outset as we observe them in the cramped space just barely scraping by to make ends meet. Father Ki-taek (Kang-Ho Song) and his wife Choong-sook (Hang Hye-jin) live here with their two adult children Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam). Ki-taek is very encouraging to his children that they should provide for the family as a collective rather than rest upon the parents to do much of the heavy lifting, an approach that downplays the idea of the family being wholly parasitic. They work hard to earn their keep, and I certainly would not begrudge anyone devoid of financial security using their initiative and street smarts to adopt a persona more tailored to an employer's criteria. If the employer fails to do their due diligence before hiring a new employees, future pretext revelations cannot be retroactively deemed a shock.
On this particular day, as the movie begins, the Kims have recently had their mobile phones disconnected and must scour the corners in search of incremental free Wi-Fi, which will allow them to read messages from potential employers. There is some good news as a pizza takeaway business has granted them an opportunity to earn an income by folding pizza boxes, although the overall pay for the energy used collectively will strike a chord with minimum wage workers busting their chops to barely eke out an acceptable welfare, while helping make corporate heads of a company wider margins of profit through cheap labour. After having some pay docked because one of the four let the team down (subtle foreshadowing), the family is not entirely disheartened with Mr. Kim, who encourages his children to play their part as providers too, giving an impromptu speech to celebrate their reconnection of telephone devices until they can find some other odd-job for the next rainy day. It is a tribute to the family that they never allow themselves to be defined by the circumstances, as shown by the 'seize the day' alcohol consumption here (a gentle confidence in their abilities to always find work) rather than frugally putting aside a little for tomorrow's uncertain trials. That lingering view out the half-basement window is metaphorical of their status hovering around the threshold of abject poverty, with a frequent drunken man relieving himself from the eye-line of their kitchen table a rather ghastly reminder of their supposed value to the South Korean economy. The view is obscured by exterior fencing, which from the interior radiates an imprisoned existence physically and mentally.
Perhaps the reason for the Kims' general sense of consistently finding a source of modest income lies in their past achievements, which we learn through their dialogue interactions. The family have run the gamut of jobs, and for many positions they have resorted to hoodwinking prospective employers with applications enhanced with false statements. The daughter has earned much of her keep by playing roles in small-time con artist gigs. For example she mentions how she was paid extra because the caught the bouquet at the wedding of a woman who she did not know personally. I admire the close-knit intimacy of the family that exists in spite of their tight living conditions not because of it. Bong frequently frames the foursome in the one shot, and all tend to be working on something productive. For example, Choong-sook constantly scrubs the apartment without being overwhelmed by the losing battle against a cockroach infestation. In contrast, the Park family are rarely framed in an isolated shot - the dynamics of that family are splintered spatially with a sharpness matching the straight lines décor of the home to evoke their isolation.
The gullible mother Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) has a potent fear of her husband's power and a clear favourite child, which irks her teenage daughter Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so) because she believes her hyperactive younger brother Da-song (Jeong Hyun-joon) is merely feigning his eccentricities for attention. Only outsider installations (like a tutor) and the diligent housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun) manage to bridge the psychological gaps between the nuclear members, and instigate a connection rooted deeper than superficial bonds. In comparison to this family, Chang argues ‘the Kims are a model of functionality and egalitarianism. Living together in close quarters has bred in them a matter-of-fact intimacy and a wily self-sufficiency.’ Meanwhile the Parks have disposable income to burn, and with a largely absent father absorbed in business meetings, it is down to the mother to hire tutors for her children, and ostensibly she chooses candidates who she enjoys the company of, even if they do little to improve her daughter's grades or hone her son's obsessive art output; an output that can be pinpointed to a traumatic catalyst (glimpsing a ghost in this house) that Yeon-kyo prefers not to relive in pursuit of a healthier present for her son. When a newcomer arrives and instinctively relates to Da-song's creative expressions, there is relief on her part that finally someone else can deal with the son's psyche and discover a potential cure.
Their golden opportunity for a symbiotic relationship between the two families presents itself in conjunction with a urinating delinquent outside the half-basement, as a friend arrives with a peculiar gift for the Kims; a rock bestowed with a magic to bring its owners great fortunes. Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) is a university student who is earning a good income by teaching the daughter in the rich Park family, and he wants his friend Ki-woo to take care of the precious student while he studies abroad, based on the good faith belief that Ki-woo will not overstep the boundaries of the student/teacher code of conduct. This is for purely selfish reasons, as Min-hyuk has a romantic infatuation with Da-hye and plans to ask for her hand in marriage once she comes of age. Ki-woo is told by this friend that his knowledge of English as a subject is of a higher level than his self-entitled college compatriots. Interestingly, later in the story Ki-woo will enter into an inappropriate relationship with this student and, as well as betraying a friend's trust, Ki-woo will also mimic Min-hyuk's prophetic claim verbatim to the rest of his family, with his dad delighting in his plan to infiltrate himself even more securely into this magnificent house of wondrous architecture. Whether his motives are grounded in genuine affection for Da-hye or due to a vice-like grip of self-belief in his determination to become a university graduate and thus behave accordingly amidst boundless self-esteem aspirations.
Bong, himself, once worked briefly as a tutor at the home of a wealthy family as a young adult, with the germ of an idea for his "Parasite" first latching onto his creative quarters as he contemplates sneaking his friends into the home for a nice pay day too. Like Joe Gillis from Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" before him, he knows there is room to extract more riches from the initial white lie. The devious set-up is inspired, one which critic A.A. Dowd regards ‘the elaborate machinations of the plot like a heist movie, cutting nimbly back and forth between planning and execution.’ Ki-woo is shown to be more indecisive and anxious than his laid-back sister, but once he attends the job interview with the matriarch of the Park family, her full disclosure that she does not care much for official documents settles his nerves of being exposed as a fraud and elevates him to a headspace of mutual dependency. His family will offer their services while in return the naive woman will bankroll their wages without even contemplating a connection. I suspect it is her deep immersion in a lifestyle of luxury and convenience where she does not have to do things herself that compounds the jittery disposition - to the point that she builds trust in a stranger after one encounter and proceeds to place all her trust in that person as a better judge of character than herself. She is an odd egg, with indirect mentioning a that her husband has violent tendencies, with critic Chang noting how she ‘embodies the family's glossy pretensions... peppering her everyday speech with English affectations‘ even when out of the context of Ki-woo's lesson. Critic Brian Eggert perceptively posits how it is she that coins the moniker 'Kevin' for Ki-woo and recontextualises the nickname ‘in the same way slave owners would rename their servants.’ If indeed she only knew how much further down the food chain Kevin is from the affluent university student he performs.
Effectively it is this possible unraveling of facades that keeps the film's tense atmosphere on a knife-edge as the breezy pacing takes over the first act. Ki-woo transfixes Yeon-kyo with his first tutorial, bar a moment of nervousness when he clenches her daughter's wrist mid-lesson. After chatting a little Yeon-kyo plants the seeds of expansion by exasperatingly complaining that her son is a Basquiat calibre artist but none of the private tutors could unlock the potential before quitting or, indeed, discreetly let go. The Kims are shrewd and merciless as they set their sights on occupying four top employment slots in the household by creating their own scandalous circumstances to displace both the driver and housekeeper. As the Kim family bask in the triumph of their overachievements, Ki-taek displays a moment of profound empathy and underlying guilty conscience to undermine the ruthless streak we have witnessed. He enquires about the precious driver whom he replaced under false pretences instigated by his daughter, and he hopes his youthfulness and prime physical condition will have afforded him with an even better job than the one he lost. Ki-jung scolds her father for demonstrating compassion for the disposable fallen when all their attention should be focused on maintaining this upwards ascent of their family net worth.
The Kims do not want to steal from the Parks aggressively, or indeed somehow take over their great wealth. Their investment is to channel as much money from that house into their home in plain sight, and when you add up the four salaries (for jobs that are being performed to a competent level) they have reached a point where maintaining the status quo is the immediate target. While they regress during Da-song's camping trip when left with a free house, one has to wonder to what degree the integrity of their predecessors remained intact when away from surveillance. The former English tutor had physical intimacy with Da-hye, the previous Benz driver likely abused his position to attract women when not on duty, and the housekeeper had full access to the mansion all day long. What ulterior motive skeletons could be lurking in her closet? Dong-ik praises the talents of the former housekeeper who resigned under concealed circumstances - when in actuality her employment was terminated due to false rumours concocted by the Kims - stating how she was skilled at the job as well as knowing her role and place in the household without overstepping the line. Her only flaw, he amusingly concedes, was a hungry appetite for food consumption.
Like a seasoned professional film director, Bong in tandem with co-screenwriter Jin-won Han methodically storyboards his script to an exactitude and introduces various objects and lines of dialogue that will play a crucial part in the pending turn of narrative twists, even if at the time they seem to be merely throwaway filler inclusions. David Ehrlich announces how "Parasite" follows the general formula of past Bong film's as it is ‘laugh-out-loud funny until the moment its not.’ The tonal shift in genre fluidity hinges upon a secret kept by Moon-gwang and it escalates into a very impressive nailbiting set-piece. From the haunting tracking shot Bong uses to plunge the viewer down into the hidden depths of a double life comparable to the Kims' own deceptions. The fissures between the housekeeper and her harboured stowaway and the Kim family is aggravated by the notion that both sides actually have similar backgrounds, fellow members of ‘the needy’ expresses the ex-housekeeper to her successor. Bong is up-to-date on the global phenomenon of the smartphone necessity, implementing a plot point based on the unexpected events being swiftly recorded in a brilliant sequence where one side wields the send button on their phone like it was a simplistic procedure of pressing a nuclear weapon button to wipe out their direct enemies. I immediately think of Donald Trump caressing his nuclear bomb button and tweeting how it is bigger and better than anyone else's. One standout moment in this suspenseful partition occurs as Bong swaps an interior perspective to an outdoor garden view as chaos ensues indoors, without the diegetic sound, in a battle for control of this critical mobile device.
Even after such a breathtaking portion in the middle section of the film, Bong does not yield to calmness as he heightens the roadblocks inflicted - a further catastrophe to the Kim family confronts them through a slightly more antique version of a telephone, a landline with a call from the homeowners who are on their way home. In another film this might be analysed as a clichéd development, but Bong has cleverly allowed us to predict such an action due to the sudden inclement weather that our outsider occupants have commented on but are too drunk to infer what the conditions might bring. The flooding of the campsite is not the sole decimation caused by monsoon-like rain. I might pick the following segment, which is really a continuation of this longer sequence, as the most engrossing and dramatically potent as Bong continues to demonstrate spectacular restraint and composure in building up the penetrating suspense onscreen. There is suspense on the surface as to whether the returning Parks will uncover the invading Kims out of veiled costumes, but the ultimate edge-of-the-seat thrill is witnessing whether the Kims can remain completely still in their hiding place (Bong places the camera above their motionless faces in a familiar cramped location), particularly once the Park parents discuss the unusual smell in their house, rekindling bad nasal detections from his new driver. Mr. Kim, we learn, has an odour akin to a boiled rag or old radish. While he may veer close to crossing the proverbial line in split-second moments of frustration, anger or forgetfulness (consider his behaviour in the spatially restricted sauna room with Yeon-kyo) without ever going fully beyond his position, this smell crosses the line with the waft going all the way to Mr. Park's seat in the back of the Benz. If this were botany, it would be cross-pollination between classes. Obviously smell cannot be efficiently communicated through the medium of film, but the verbalsm words by Dong-ik imply a feeling of unequivocal disdain for a class on a par with stray vermin, as if the smell is apart of their natural essence rather than seeing it through objective realism as a consequence of the living conditions they are boxed into due to financial constraints. I think of a scene from the Hirokazu Kore-eda film "Nobody Knows" as one of the abandoned children bravely asks for his fair weather friends to call around to play video games, and overhears their reason for no longer hanging out: the fierce smell from their constricted home.
Jeffrey Anderson asks us to mull over the momentum gathered in the 2nd and 3rd Acts because it ‘forces viewers to ask hard questions about why the first half had been so enjoyable.’ I thrived in the cunning cons orchestrated by the Kims, and Bong allows viewers the option to revel in the characters' shades are good and bad, as James Berardinelli acknowledges that a ‘conventional movie might cast them as villains.’ Once the big reveal is exposed, suddenly there is a competition for audience respect, because the housekeeper's own rough life combined with her own airtight performance role is deserving of rank alongside the Kim family charade of veiled respectability. If we flip our perspective we can understand why certain characters choose to do reckless actions during the film's climatic apogee in the heat of the moment. I would not vilify someone for trampling over another person to save a relative, for it is human nature to look out for our own in a fight or flight scenario. Fundamentally, the climax reiterates the notion that the parasitic qualities of capitalism end up dividing people with fatalistic shark tank carnage in the quest for monetary growth. Those in the higher classes are normally immune to the destruction besides minor inconvenience, for example notice where the Kim family resides the morning after the flood as the Park family plot a plan B. In the case of Da-song's extravagant birthday gathering, which is attended by all four of the Kim clan, it is the venue for the elites to once find themselves caught in the crossfire. While that is unfortunate, the Kim plight is poignant too because they were summoned to congregate at the venue so the class above them could take advantage of them as commodities. It is justified, if not quantified, by their employers with the fact they are getting paid extra.
Some might not be overwhelmingly onboard with the bookended denouement, which incorporates a lot of voice-over and could be designated as unnecessary. "Parasite" flirts with the idea of a somewhat happy ending, but a Hollywood flight of fantasy cannot surmount the immovable conundrum of the persisting socioeconomic chasm. The Kim family discuss how having a lot of money makes people nice, because money is an iron for wrinkles. There is a moment in the film in which the Kims have infiltrated the house and act like they are the current benefactors of the architect's masterpiece, getting indulgently drunk in the spacious living area. One of the neglected dogs saunters over craving some affection, and is cruely shoved away from the area by Choong-sook with chutzpah. When faced with a trickier dilemma she has no qualms kicking someone down a stairway. In richness or poorness, what a lovely lady is revealed behind the prefixes. When Mr. Kim, dangerously treading along the line of class dynamics, poses his new employer with the question of whether he loves his wife, Mr. Park is taken aback by the question before laughing. When Ki-woo asks his friend/mentor Min-hyuk if he loves Da-hye, another laughter reaction occurs. Love, for those heading upwards on the escalator of capitalism, is a by-product of their commanding capital influence. For those on the adjacent downwards escalator with no property rights, love is all that keeps them from jumping off the mechanism and surviving in their darkened corner of capitalist insignificance. Bong Joon-ho has directed other films that engage with the inequities present in class divisions, like "Snowpiercer" (2013), but whereas that film took a horizontal vantage point between class disparity, his "Parasite" is firmly an allegory of vertical lines. The rock might bring comfort but it weighs you down trying to climb that steep perpendicular road out of the nadir. As Anderson states in his review, ‘reaching the high ground is desirable, but those occupying the low ground aren't going anywhere.’ Outside of a pipe dream, their only way to afford enjoying such a house is to tactfully move through it with surgical precision, dodging those invisible lines.
For all the titles in my great movies collection: letterboxd.com/davidwallace/list/great-movies-collection/