Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Written by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin Wan
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, and Jang Hye-jin
A comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains.
As described by the creator himself, Parasite is a wicked, gut-twisting movie, which at times will make you laugh at its darkest moments. It is a brutal satire on class warfare and the growing wealth disparity of this century.
The movie starts with the set-up of a family of four, the Kims, in their semi-basement house, straying for free wifi and folding pizza boxes for a living. The extent of the poverty and destitution of their lives is clearly seen when they open their windows to let in the bug-killing fumigation on their street for some free disinfectant in their house.
However, things take a turn when the family’s son Ki Woo is gifted an enigmatic Scholar’s rock from his much well-off college-going school friend. This symbolic rock is supposed to bring wealth and good luck to the family’s measly lives. This proves to be accurate, as Ki Woo gets the precious offer to tutor a young girl of the wealthy and prestigious Park family. He fakes his college degree and becomes entwined in their lives. Soon, greed overtakes the minds of the Kims, as they one-by-one, take over jobs in the Park mansion, and infiltrate their house. The sister Ki-Jung goes by ‘Jessica’ and presents herself as an art therapist to tame the Parks’ young son. Their father takes over the role of their chauffeur and their mother poses as the housekeeper.
Parasite consistently focuses on the devastating untold truth of capitalism. The Kims’ cunning scheme seems relatable and forgiving. With sheer desperation and nothing left to lose, the Kims walk down the treacherous slope of greed and shrewd. It leads them to act in a way no one would have imagined. We side with them as they are the ones that seem to be oppressed and make us justify their questionable actions. They are deprived of essential opportunities and are constantly pushed down by the hardships of life. Even so, they remain united as a family, motivated by plans that they come up with together.
This sharply contrasts with the Parks, for whom their money buys them defences against a wide range of dangers, and allows them to indulge in their children’s idiotic whims to the point of craziness. They’re oblivious and ignorant to the plight of those who aren’t as privileged as them. The upper-class couple passes snide remarks about how they hate the stench of those who travel in subways and how it ‘crosses the line.’ The wife is quite paranoid and anxious but with good reason. She thanks the rains that flooded the Kims’ house rendering them homeless, appreciating how now there was a clear sky the day of her party. The husband shares the same elitist worldview but even so, they are likable. They are fully rendered personalities, just as human as the scheming protagonists.
The first act of the movie shows the animosity of the poor family towards the hostile wealthy family, who barely consider them as humans. Bong ingeniously dramatizes the daily indignities faced by the poor from the hands of the lavishly living rich. The family is cut off from the developed society, denied educational opportunities, and are discriminated continuously by the well-off digital society. It almost feels like a quintessential Rich vs Poor scenario.
But the epiphany in the second act forms the coda of the plotline. The old housekeeper returns and pleads the family to help her accommodate her husband in the underground bunker of the mansion, asking for a “neighbor in need” as an attempt to shield him from loan sharks. The greed-driven Kims deny her request and go on to kill the housekeeper to maintain their position serving their rich employers. The tonal difference shows the shift from Rich vs Poor to Poor vs Poor with a sense of melancholy and pity towards both sides.
One of the most challenging parts of the movie is its language barrier. A film based mainly on wordplay and irony-laced dialogues can easily be lost in translation. The sarcasm and the shift from comedy to thriller is well executed with no meaning being lost. The actors portray morally ambiguous characters that come together to highlight a universal theme and create a compelling narrative. This movie is a clear landmark on how any form of art can transcend all barriers and spread the message across borders.
The quirky visual language accentuated by the actors’ multi-layered nuances keeps you hooked throughout. The depth of emotion in the uniformly great performances of the cast flesh out characters that could easily have been cartoons, and helps support the metaphorical weight the story places on their backs. What’s fascinating is how the intensity of the movie keeps increasing even though the fate of all the characters keeps dwindling after the first act. The pacing demands your rapt attention and you’re left dancing on its fringe. One moment to another, the movie unravels the plot as smooth as butter.
The cinematography and the composition to highlight the themes of the movie is beautifully crafted. The camera deliberately pans forward in most of the scenes, in the beginning, insinuating a sense of foreboding. As the movie progresses the camera movement becomes more linear and static. The reveal of all the major plot twists is shot in a way that is very reminiscent of Hitchcock.
Bong Joon also illustrates the social class structure using set design in a way in which it stays with the audience constantly. The Park family live in a high-rise luxury mansion, and one set of stairs ascend to their front door, that the Kims have to use to reach their doorstep. The depiction of Mr Park descending from the elevated stairs of his mansion and the Kims descending numerous flights of stairs down to their squalid semi-basement house is symbolic in reiterating social disparity.
Yang Jin-Mo, the editor of Parasite does a fantastic job in stitching together beautiful sequences chief among which is one of a montage containing 60 shots that appear in a span of 5 minutes. The heinous act of kicking out the respected housekeeper of the Park Household, Mun-Kwang, by faking an illness and taking advantage of a peach allergy is muted by overlaying classical music and slow-motion dolly shots. Another scene is one in which Ki Woo’s sister Ki-Jung shuts down the toilet seat overflowing with sewage water after their house is flooded and lights a cigarette propped on top of it. It’s amidst utter chaos and seems untimely at first glance but it’s the only moment where she can let go and isn’t pressurized to be someone she’s not. It is a bittersweet moment.
The implications of this Palme d’Or winner, with a star-studded cast gaining traction run deeper than what meets the eye. At the 2020 Academy Awards, Parasite won a sweeping four awards and became the first non-English movie to have won Best Picture. This means a great deal to the South Korean film industry and can very well be called a cultural breakthrough. It has brought Bong Joon’s other masterful work such as ‘Okja’ and ‘Snowpiercer’ to the forefront and won him critical acclaim.
The score of the film although nothing exceptional by itself, blends seamlessly with the flow of the scenes. One song in particular called ‘A Glass of Soju’ written by Bong Joon himself, implies how the son of the impoverished patriarch continues with life after the events of the film. He comes home every night to find solace in drinking a glass of soju, Korea’s favourite liquor. The song then went on to be nominated for the Best Original Song by the Academy.
Parasite is a tale of unrelenting co-dependence. Maybe that’s why there are no heroes or villains here. The characters are marred by different shades of grey. In the end, there is just disquieting dread. Despite the unspeakable horrors the members of the household have committed and seen, the world remains the same. Maybe this is what the film wanted to show us—the world remains impassive towards the iniquitous inequalities and continues to move on. Bong Joon Ho has weaved this genre-bending, mega superstructure of the society with various visual themes in this tragicomedy maneuver. But beneath all the madness, lies a simple, heart-aching story that flows in your cinematic soul like poetry.
Throughout this dark comedic masterpiece, you’re left to wonder if the joke is really on you, sitting in the comforts of your cushioned seat at the movie hall, encaptivated by such riveting storytelling.
—Written by Shuba Murthy and Alankriti Singh for MTTN
—Images by Google Images