Parasite ★★★★★

I’ve wanted to take on the daunting task of writing a deserving review/analysis of this film ever since I first saw it in theaters last June. It’s simply a terrific movie and it has since become my favorite film of all time. With the Oscars airing on Sunday night, I knew I had to watch it for the third time in preparation, and this time share my thoughts and observations.

Disclaimer: This review is very long and contains major spoilers.

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Last year, Korean cinema celebrated its 100-year anniversary. It’s fitting, then, that Director Bong Joon-ho coincidentally released his best and most successful film to date in the same year, garnering long-overdue international recognition for Korean films. But why does Parasite – frequently touted as 'flawless' and 'a masterpiece' – stand apart from other Korean works? I personally think it's because its subject matter is universal. Building upon a unique premise, Parasite sheds light on serious and pervasive issues of class through a gripping story that skillfully balances both realistic and larger-than-life elements, meanwhile remaining appealing to both general and critical audiences. The film’s talented and experienced cast brings to life characters who are charming, colorful, and sympathetic; the production design is amazingly intricate and stunning, and the film has some very precise camerawork and editing that accentuate its visuals. It’s difficult not to find things to like about the film when it's so well made.

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“This is so metaphorical.”
—Ki-woo, Parasite

As much as a cinephile I am, I’m a bit of a basic viewer, in that I generally miss a lot of embedded meaning and symbolism, especially on my first viewing. Though it shames me to say, the quote above aptly sums up how superficially I perceived the layers of the film the first time I saw it. That being said, I want to dig deeper into the film and talk about things I noticed during my subsequent viewings. Parasite is an elaborate allegory of the often ruthless social stratification born from our capitalistic society – which means that it can serve as a critique of capitalism on its own as well. The fight to climb the social ladder is often vicious, sometimes fatal, and almost always impossible, as we tragically witness in the film. The film illustrates the demarcation of class through the complex portrayal of the socioeconomic inequality that its characters experience, and it further draws attention to the divide through the visual use of architecture, geology, light, and color.

As we already know, the story begins by presenting us with a clear dichotomy of classes: The Kims represent poverty and degeneration, and the Parks represent prosperity and success. Starting with the son Ki-woo, the Kims slowly worm their way into the Park household through deceit and manipulation, revealing themselves as the parasite the film’s title alludes to. But as the story progresses, the Kims discover that there are parasites who have been leeching off the Parks long before they entered the picture; they are an invisible class who exist beneath the Kims – a family so deprivileged that they weren’t even given an official family name by which I can refer to them. I’m of course talking about the Parks’ original housekeeper Moon-gwang and her husband. In the same way the Parks would be hostile towards the Kims if they found out the truth about them, the Kims react in disgust towards Moon-gwang and her husband, with Mrs. Kim sternly rejecting fellowship with those who are ‘needy’ (as Moon-gwang labels herself). It’s at this moment that there exists a tragic, short-lived possibility where all three families could have continued their lives comfortably in a symbiotic relationship. But as with the beginnings of many tragedies, apathy and greed get in the way, and we know what happens next.

With the introduction of the third class, the film effectively blurs the lines between parasite and host, as it brings to light discreet ways the Parks use those beneath them, reframing the question of who the parasite actually is. While the Kims – and, more directly, the Moon-Gwang and her husband – are obviously feeding off the Parks, the Parks are only able to maintain their comfortable lifestyle because of the labor of the Kims, even requiring them to sacrifice their personal lives and free time while the Parks are oblivious to their suffering – such as in the case of the Kims losing their home to a storm that was at most an inconvenience to the Parks. However, they maintain that they must be morally right because they compensate their employees for the trouble they put them through, as though money alone justifies subjecting their employees to humiliating or offensive treatment – such as when Mr. Kim, a middle-aged man who was only hired as a driver, had to dress up as an “Indian” for the amusement of a child. In a similar vein, it could be argued that the Kims are not morally depraved for deceiving the Parks, since they’re providing the Parks with satisfying, quality service. Maybe there's more than one kind of parasite.

At one point in the film, Mr. Park notably talks about imaginary lines which he takes insult to if an employee – that is, someone from a lower class – crosses. To him, something as innocuous as Mr. Kim remarking that Mr. Park loves his wife qualifies as “crossing the line”. This is because through these self-appointed boundaries, at least the way I see it, he’s able to maintain a disconnect with lower classes – and if he only has a superficial relationship with everyone who works for him, he never has to examine his own privilege that exists at the expense of those beneath him, thereby never having to empathize with (and to some degree, humanize) those who lead less fortunate lives. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Bong Joon-ho wrote the rich family to be emotionally distant with even each other, while the poor family share intimate relationships. Mr. Park even says his relationship with his wife “could be called love”, implying its bereavement of it; on the other hand, we see Mr. and Mrs. Kim showing affection to each other on several different occasions. Perhaps Bong Joon-ho is trying to say that the higher up on the ladder you are, the easier it is to lose your humanity.

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“The semi-basement is basically the middle of high and low. There’s this fear that you can fall even further below but you still feel hope that you’re half above-ground.”
—Lee Ha-jun, Parasite’s production designer

Moving away from metaphorical depictions of class, one of the aspects I found most interesting about the practical side of Parasite is how the Kims are depicted. They live in a semi-basement home with limited natural light, so they initially seem to be at the bottom of the chain, literally living underground. But as the film’s production designer puts it, living in a semi-basement also means living half above-ground, and with that comes an added advantage over those who are completely underground, such as Moon-gwang’s husband who doesn’t have access to any natural light. As it is in real life, being able to live in a home with lots of natural light (such as in the extravagant case of the Parks) is often an expensive privilege that many can’t afford. Additionally, living underground, even only partially, comes with an extra set of challenges, such as having to fend off pests and being at a significantly higher risk of floods (as in the case of the Kims).

Another practical way the film highlights the differences between the families is through the use of color. Alongside production design, each home has a very specific color palette: the interior of the Parks’ house is limited to dull, simple colors whereas the overall color grading of the scenes that take place in it is vibrant and bright; the Kims’ home is cluttered with multicolored, saturated items, but the color grading is muted and dark; finally, in the Parks’ basement, the furnishings are devoid of color and the color grading is gritty and greenish. Though maybe not obvious at first, the film’s conscious use of color is interesting. The way I interpret it, it's a visual representation of how the Parks are only outwardly blessed whereas the Kims are fulfilled in spite of their exterior, unfortunately implying that Moon-gwang's husband is thoroughly bereft of any pleasure.

As a whole, production design plays a major role in demonstrating the socioeconomic inequality evident in Parasite. A particular structure that is used multiple times in the film to showcase this is stairs – or more specifically, ascending and descending structures. During one of my favorite scenes in the movie, Mr. Kim and his children run home in the rain, and as the family descends from the Parks’ home, we see the structural regression of wealth; a mild rain retreats with them, washing away all the dirt from more affluent neighborhoods, slowly evolving into a destructive storm that wipes away their neighborhood and home. This sequence shows us that, in addition to other factors, there also exists a geological class divide between the two families – the Parks live comfortably on top of a hill, whereas the Kims are resigned to a home in the gutter.

“All the houses you see in the film—the rich house, poor house, neighborhood surrounding the poor house—were built from scratch.”
—Bong Joon-ho, on the production design of Parasite

Speaking of production design, one thing I’m sure everyone can agree on is that the beautiful home of the Parks – arguably the true star of the film – is an absolute masterpiece. I want to take a moment and appreciate all the hard work that went into creating the sets seen on film. I will be the first to admit that production design has always been a bit of an afterthought to me, but Parasite’s sets were so impressive that even someone like me couldn’t be blind to them. I was surprised to learn that not only was the Kims’ semi-basement home a realistic set made up of materials and furniture from actual rundown homes, but also that the surrounding neighborhood was a set built in a huge tank that was flooded during the filming of the flood scene. Most startling to me, however, was the fact that the gorgeous two-story house in which majority of the film takes place isn’t even a real house, but made up of four elaborate sets.

Along with his script, Bong Joon-ho had sketched a floor plan and basic structures for the Parks’ house because he had very specific requirements in regards to character movement, such as where characters could hide or eavesdrop, and specific paths they would take from one area of the house to another. He and his production designer Lee Ha-jun – who also designed the beautiful sets in his previous film Snowpiercer – had many conversations to perfect the design of the house. Because of this, in addition to specific requests from the director of photography regarding natural lighting, using a real house became impossible. It’s probably accurate to say that the end result we see in film was born through the careful labor and the combined visions of Bong, Lee, and DP Hong. Lee mentions in an interview that he consulted with an architect friend of his to ensure that the house he designed seemed authentic, as Bong’s ideas and requirements allegedly made for an architecturally implausible house. He must have been successful, as even the likes of other highly regarded directors were fooled!

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Parasite is one of the few films I can think of that almost unanimously pleased both critics and general viewers. At its core, it tells a simple story of a family with a dream for a better life, something most people can relate to. It manages to be both funny and lighthearted on top of its serious and scary moments, probably another reason it pleased so many. Thanks to how accessible the film is, I can recommend it to anyone I know with ease, knowing well that everyone who sees it will be able to enjoy some part of it. I think this demonstrates what a skilled and witty writer Bong Joon-ho is. He’s well known for blending seemingly conflicting genres, effortlessly transitioning from one tone to another without anything feeling amiss. One example from the film that comes to mind is when the tied-up Moon-gwang climbs up the stairs from the basement, crying out for help, and Mrs. Kim abruptly kicks her back down the stairs – it's hilarious for two seconds, but then she bashes her head against a wall, and suddenly we’re horrified she’s dead. I can’t think of any other director who can pull off sudden tonal shifts as well.

To the delight of cinephiles and critics, every part of the film was masterfully crafted, with striking intention to detail in even the little things. Bong Joon-ho has a careful eye, and it shows in the impeccable timing visible in some scenes of the film. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Bong and actor Choi Woo-shik (who portrays the poor son Ki-woo in the film) mention that the scene in which Ki-woo's childhood friend offers him the tutoring job had to be reshot multiple times in order to get the timing of the bus that drives by in the background right. It apparently had to drive by right after Ki-woo decides to take the job, symbolizing his transition into the world of crime. I’m sure most people didn’t even notice the bus (I certainly didn’t), but learning about these details makes me appreciate the film that much more. Bong’s meticulous nature as a director and writer sets him apart as an artist whose very passionate about his work. What he brings to the industry is so refreshing and original compared to the largely homogenous content that comes out annually. As a cinephile (and to some extent, someone of Asian descent), I feel grateful that one of the most notable directors of our time is this modest, down-to-earth man from South Korea.

I get horrified each time I think of how close I came to not seeing Parasite in the theaters last summer, because I’m sure my experience would have been less magical had I first watched it months later after its digital release, possibly after being influenced by the inevitable attention it received upon its arrival in the West. I had only chosen to see Parasite because the other titles that were showing at the time seemed generic. I did a quick Google search of the film, read its barebones synopsis on IMDb (some inaccurate description about a conflict between clans), glanced a headline about it winning the Palme d’Or, and thought that it would be a quality watch even if it didn’t sound like something I’d be interested in. I went in blind with no expectations; I walked out speechless and awestruck.

Watching Parasite that first time was an entirely unique and irreplicable cinematic experience. I was helplessly enthralled by Parasite from start to finish. It pulled me in gently with its quiet and simple start, entranced me with its engrossing and tense middle, and completely blew me away with its explosive and unexpected finish. “Wow” was the only word that managed to come out of my mouth when the credits started rolling. Bong Joon-ho’s name flashed across the screen, and I knew then that I would be obsessed with the man for months to come (this was only the second film I’d seen from him at the time). There isn’t a film that has so mercilessly robbed my attention and so effortlessly played with my emotions as Parasite. Once tensions ran high in the film, starting from the unexpected return of the Parks from their camping trip, the film did not slow down once to give its audience a breather until the very end. I was constantly holding my breath or covering my mouth, trying not to blink, unable to peel my eyes away for even a moment. I was as anxious as a kid taking her final exams. This is what cinema was made for. Since I couldn’t get the film out of my head for the next couple of days, I knew I had to go and see it again, which was a first for me. I know it’s common for a lot of film fans to watch the same film multiple times in its opening week, but Parasite is the only film that’s made me feel like I needed to see it again so soon, and it’s so far the only movie I’ve watched so many times in the span of six months. I’m disheartened by the fact that none of my consequent viewings have been able to reproduce the magic and wonder of that first time, but I suppose that is an unavoidable part of storytelling.

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“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
—Bong Joon-ho, upon receiving the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film

We all know Parasite is going to take home the Oscar for Best International Film at the Academy Awards, but I’m hoping against hope that Parasite transcends barriers – crossing those seemingly uncrossable lines of language, geography, and race – and wins Best Picture as well. At the very least, let Bong Joon-ho win for Best Director or Best Original Screenplay. Actually, I hope Parasite wins all the awards it was nominated for, because the film and crew are so deserving of them all. In the recent years of the Academy, there have been many controversial nominations and wins, but Parasite is not one of them. Though even if it doesn’t win Best Picture on Sunday, it’s already made history. It’s South Korea’s first film to not only win the Palme d’Or, the biggest award at the Cannes Film Festival, but also to be nominated in any category at the Oscars, in addition to being the first fully Asian film to be nominated for Best Picture. At the SAG Awards, it was the first foreign film to win best ensemble, the top award of the show. The film has notably swept other award shows as well, including the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs – the latter at which Bong beat bigshot Tarantino for Best Original Screenplay.

Parasite is a work of art, a masterpiece. It's a game-changer that will go down in film history as a classic, and Bong Joon-ho will be a director whose work will be studied by film for years to come.

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OSCAR EDIT:
THEY DID IT. PARASITE WON BEST PICTURE. WOOOOOOOOO!! PARASITE HAS MADE OSCAR HISTORY!!! And Bong Joon-ho won Best Director and Best Original Screenplay! I can die a happy woman now. Wish Lee Ha-jun would have won for Best Production Design too, but Parasite still won 4/6 of its nominations!! #BONGHIVE

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