Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” is a movie I would definitely screen as a double feature with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifting.” Both of them deal with characters on the low end of the economic totem pole who resort to deceitful ways in order to survive in an especially harsh and unforgiving world. But while they start as one type of movie, they eventually take a very sharp left turn to give audiences something unexpected and deeply disturbing. Also, they each won Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in different years, and this should give you a clear idea of just how incredibly brilliant these movies are.
The story opens up in a shabby semi-basement apartment where the Kim family resides and struggles to survive. Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) are unemployed, and along with their children, son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), they work low-paying jobs which include putting together pizza boxes for a local company. The area around them is squalid to say the least, and they can never rid themselves of the stench of urine and vomit coming through their window even as they struggle to take advantage of their neighbor’s Wi-Fi. When an exterminator arrives to fumigate the area, Ki-taek encourages his wife to leave the window open so they can get the apartment fumigated for free as it threatens to be overtaken by unwanted insects.
But then one day, the family is visited by Ki-woo’s friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), who is currently a university student. While there, he encourages Ki-woo to take over his job as an English tutor for Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), daughter of the wealthy Park family. Ki-woo is initially hesitant as he does not have a degree, but Min encourages him to fake it. With the help of Ki-jung, he is given forged documents which look quite real, and he is off to the Park household for his interview.
“Parasite” is insidiously clever in showing how different the Parks’ living arrangements are from the Kims’. Upon arriving at their glamorous household, he is made to go through a door which opens with a very ominous sound as it sounds like the rest of the world has been shut out to keep anyone from squatting on such valuable territory. It is a modern building and the kind you pass by on the road where sarcastically tell yourself, “yeah, I can afford that.”
From there, the movie turns into a wickedly black comedy as Ki-woo wins over Mrs. Park who watches him tutor her daughter ever so confidently as he encourages her to keep a check on her pulse during exams. When he learns the Parks have an artistically inclined son who is in need of an art teacher, Ki-woo tells her he knows just the person. That person is, of course, his sister Ki-jung, but the siblings have their act together to where they will not reveal their true identities, and it is hilarious to watch how infinitely prepared they are before they ring the doorbell.
It is also sublime to see how Ki-woo and Ki-jung win the trust of this wealthy family as they come up with clever ways of getting their parents hired as a driver and a housekeeper. Of course, this involves getting some longtime employees fired, and the ways they accomplish this are brilliant. Suffice to say, there is now more than one use for a packet of hot sauce.
When the Parks go away on a weekend camping trip, the Kim family spends this time in the lavish home, and they revel in drinking their expensive alcohol as they comment on how gullible rich people can be. I have to admit I found much joy to be taken in this family infiltrating the land of the rich as there is a perverse pleasure of seeing people acquire this lifestyle by fooling others. Boon Joon-ho invites us to share in this giddy deceit, and then he pulls out the rug from under you.
During their inebriated celebration, the Kim family suddenly hears the doorbell ring, and they are greeted by the housekeeper they got fired, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), who begs to be let inside as she has to retrieve something from down in the basement. I cannot give anything away from here, but everything goes to hell in a handbasket as secrets are revealed, and the characters will do anything to keep them from being discovered. By that, I mean anything.
I am not overly familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s work which includes “Okja,” “The Host” and “Mother.” I have, however, seen his English-language debut “Snowpiercer” which involves its characters going from the lower-class cars of a train to the ones where the elite reside in comfort, and like that one, “Parasite” observes the vast divide between the haves and have-nots which continues to grow in this day and age. Even after the Kim family has successfully deceived the Parks, they wonder if they can ever truly belong in the realm of the wealthy. Ki-woo even asks Park Da-hye if he could really exist in this society, and she simply shrugs.
I love how Joon-ho gets us to delight in the Kim family’s deception as we too deep down would love to worm our way into a level of society which tantalizes us with the possibility of joining even though we never can. But therein lies the trap as he makes us see there are consequences for such conniving actions, and you can be sure that blood will be spilt. Whether or not the Park family belongs to the 1% remains to be seen, but perhaps you should treat this movie as though they do.
From start to finish, I was deeply enthralled with “Parasite” to where I never once took my eyes off the screen. While the jarring twists and turns the movie takes may throw some audience members off, they all make perfect sense and enhance the feelings of tremendous guilt we are forced to endure as these characters suffer great consequences, some of which are worse than death.
The acting all around is superb, and there is not a weak performance to be found here. Song Kang-ho is especially effective as a man who is afflicted by a certain smell he cannot shake, and it is the kind the rich associate with poor people. We see this wear away at his soul as the Park family comments on it without realizing where exactly this smell comes from, it is almost no surprise to see him snap when he does.
My hat is also off to Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam as they make their characters seem so infinitely clever to where you have to be in awe of their talents. Seeing them worm their way into the lives of the Parks ever so easily and calmly is an utter delight as we can only wish to be as clever as they are in this instance, and they keep this act up to almost to the last minute.
Seriously, “Parasite” may very well be the cinematic masterpiece of 2019 as there are only a few other movies from this past year which come close to reaching this level of brilliance. For those of you with an irrational fear of subtitles, I advise you to put those fears to the side as the most adventurous of filmgoers would do themselves a disservice to miss out on seeing this one on the big screen.
One other thing, Min-hyuk gives the family a large rock which is supposed to bring them wealth, and Ki-woo has several scenes in which he describes the rock as being “metaphorical.” This rock, however, proves to be nowhere as metaphorical as the Indian/Native American hats a couple of characters wear towards the movie’s end. Watch the movie and you will see what I mean.