When I was at university I was introduced to Memories of Murder, one of my housemate’s favourite films as he chose it for a screening of our film society, Bong Joon-Ho’s murder mystery that proves to be more than your typical Marple. While it was an impressive and striking film, I didn’t enjoy it. Even on rewatch, the conflicting ideas within the film never really meld together into something complete. Since then, the South Korean director has made a name for himself in the western world thanks to the releases of the violent story of revolution Snowpiercer and dark family drama Okja. Both are stunning examples of a singular voice and Parasite, which since watching it a month ago, has gone on to win four Oscars and become the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture is an example of a director who has almost perfected his craft.
Telling the story of the Kim and Park families who are woven together when young man Kim Ki-Woo (Choi Woo Shik) cons his way into the Park families lives, posing as an English teacher for their teen daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso). As he begins to ingratiate himself into this upper-class family he sees an opportunity to pull his own family out of the lower class basement apartment they find themselves trapped in. However, when their deception begins to unravel it threatens the safety of both families.
While this is a much more complicated, twisting web of contorting parts, Parasite is mainly a film consumed with one simple notion and word. What starts as a simple black comedy, one you think you’ve seen many times before becomes a political satire as it slowly but surely removes the blindfold from your eyes pointing you towards your own privilege. Written by Joon-Ho and co-writer Han Jin-Won, the film cleverly veils your eyes from the constraints the Kim family face by having them avail themselves in charming and amusing ways, the small, cramped living quarters feel intimate and loving thanks to a family that doesn’t know any better. As events progress and the world opens up thanks to the open space of the Park household, every time the camera returns to the Kim’s home it seems tragic in comparison.
An extended sequence where the Kim’s, dejected after a night of unseen setbacks return to their home during a storm perfectly sums up the vast difference between these two worlds as they begin to climb down multiple staircases and pathways back to their house in the dead of night as rain pours around them. This moment proves to be one of the most effective visual cues used throughout the film but played to perfection here. Joon-Ho along with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo in one dramatic visual statement emotionally plant them back in the position of ‘the help’, the forgotten employees, the less than equal, the downstairs to the Park’s upstairs.
In fact, the whole film relies on its audience performing these comparisons with only subtle prompts in the dialogue. Lines about how a poor man smells different although effective say less than a spotless and vastly empty house do. Everything from the set design to the way the camera incorporates space is aimed to subliminally open your eyes. It would be simple to pity the Kim’s but they are a proud and clever family, an almost predatory group of people pushed to grasp something better once they can see it.
Intimate and understated performances by Song Kang-ho and Park So-dam remind us that things are not as perfectly realised as they believe, something they are reminded through the actions of their employers, a simple message that they do not belong. Their rise from the depths is subtle, unique and boldly droll. Parasite pushes us to almost pity the Parks, with their massive house, fancy cars and an overabundance of power, they don’t understand the real world and Joon-Ho finds that more tragic than anything the Kim’s do to keep their newfound sense of belonging.
The film serves as a reminder, a heartfelt plea to remember that no matter what class you are, how much money you make or where you live, we can always find our luck change, pushing us further down than we were before. Much like Snowpiercer, this is a story about class but instead of using science fiction to make a point, Parasite feels all too believable, both in how we all underestimate people but in how when pushed we can all do horrible things for just a little bit more.
Dry witted, grotesque and staggeringly beautiful, Parasite is a classic for the modern age that serves as a judgement on the state of the world today. Chastising us by using the notion of schadenfreude for most of the films uncomfortable laughs, Joon-Ho revels in the hypocrisy of his own work and thanks to this unflinching approach we should all question how we see other people and ultimately what we find amusing because we aren’t willing to question the safety our own lives bring.