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Class, like chaos, is a ladder: Parasite, a delectable home invasion caper, unpacks the moral and social corruption needed for the climb.
It’s not unfamiliar territory for director Bong Joon Ho. After all, Snowpiercer‘s climate-disaster train was an allegory for the erosion of justice and equality in the elite’s effort at ‘balance’.
But the South Korean filmmaker’s retreat from bleak dystopia carries a much heavier toll. Foremost, Parasite is an extraordinary piece of cinema – but it’s also a rich commentary on class warfare and the curse of high-life dreams.
You can check out the trailer for Parasite below:
Beneath the bread line, we have the Kims – a family united in their poverty, slithering from chance to chance and always online. In the immediate moments of meeting them, their greatest concern is not one of food or place, but WiFi. ‘No WhatsApp?’ asks a panicked Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin), the ultra-cleaning, cloth-in-hand mum.
Their home is a tiny basement apartment, peering out through steel bars onto Seoul’s backstreets, flowing with dirty air and drunken ragamuffins. Their only internet access is gifted upon them from above – genuinely, as siblings Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) and Ki-jung (Park So Dam) hop up onto a toilet to secure a crumb of signal from a password-less modem.
As the mild-mannered, loving patriarch, Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho, in another collaboration with Bong) keeps his head when others falter. For example, as street fumigators let loose outside, a move to shut the windows is met with ‘No, free extermination!’ as he continues to fold pizza boxes in the smog, grafting in an economy where thousands of graduates apply for security guard posts.
Upstairs and beyond are the Parks, living in a Grand Designs sanctuary of glass, grass and art deco finesse (envisioned with an effective blend of CGI and the most breathtakingly intricate production design you’ll ever relish), previous home to its own architect.
Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo Jeong) is a naive housewife, a worrying mum focused on her son’s ‘eccentric genius’ and his love of the pseudo-Native American, while her daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso) is left a little sidelined. Meanwhile, their dad Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun) operates a regimented life: white-collar work, ferried home and a home-cooked meal via the loyal housekeeper (Lee Jung Eun).
Two sides of the coin, coasting through life. Yet, their worlds collide thanks to a universal constant: boy likes girl. Ki-woo’s friend urges him to tutor Da-hye in English – one, because he’s ’10 times better than the college guys’, and two, there’s no threat (the thought of them ‘slavering over my Da-hye’ makes him sick).
Through some photoshop wizardry courtesy of Ki-jung (her impressed dad muses: ‘Wow, does Oxford have a major in document forgery?’), he’s quickly accepted into the Park home. From here, it’s a chain of overhead light-bulbs (metaphorically and literally).
To delve into more plot would be a disservice to Parasite‘s thrilling elegance. Bong’s artistry has always defied genre pigeon-holing: think of it as a social realist drama-thriller hybrid, brimming with auteur flourishes and Ocean’s Four hijinks – only here, the heist at play concerns a better life, not casinos.
Beat-for-beat, each film-making component works gloriously in tandem. Every camera glide and pan (under the dutiful control of Hong Kyung Pyo), each inventive twist on Jaeil Jung’s score, the many, many twists and turns – all evidence of Bong’s mastery of the medium (particularly in one showstopping, peach take-down sequence).
Their infiltration is made all the more gripping via the ensemble’s perfect performances. Two characters stand out: Ki-jung, aka ‘Jessica, only child, Illinois Chicago’, whose phony ‘art psychology’ allows the actress to channel terrific authority. Then there’s Song Kang Ho, who puts in yet again another wonderful performance – much sweeter, more vulnerable and worthy of awards attention he didn’t receive.
It’s a true testament to the humanity in Bong’s writing that the charlatan Kims, in their ruthless subterfuge, are a damn hoot to be around. Beneath their fraud is a tangible sense of glee, a gratitude of sorts that lessens what could easily have been presented as self-serving villainy.
That’s because their taste of upper-class isn’t fetishised like in Crazy Rich Asians – aspirational capitalism is the path to people’s downfall and detachment from what’s proper, it seems. ‘She’s rich, but still nice,’ one says. ‘No, she’s nice because she’s rich,’ another replies.
Bong’s work has long been praised for its deft density. Here, his confluence of heart-thumping pizzazz and an embittered vision of today’s society is angrier than ever. Not as gut-wrenching as Ken Loach’s kitchen-sink tear-jerkers – it’s smarter, nippier, funnier, scarier, with any number of hands in play at one time.
It’s unclear who the titular parasites are. On one hand, the Machiavellian Kims are the easy target, suckling at the teat of servitude with a dishonest modus operandi. Though, the Parks aren’t innocent in all this – their ignorance is staunch, the disdain of their own servants is clear (they’re extremely wary of staff ‘crossing the line’, and nauseous at their smell). They’re a prime example of monetary excess – for both families, it’s what clouds their judgement, rarely for the better.
Perhaps the real parasite is the class system, as people on either side of the Upstairs, Downstairs divide flounder and judge the other (at one point, Yeon-gyo makes Ram-don, a combo of instant noodles and pricey meat, a clear juxtaposition of the two families).
The battle of wits is mostly a clandestine war, until it isn’t. Bong evolves Parasite into the most unexpected of treats – a truly versatile, bloody, wondrous nightmare (with a near Biblical moment of flooding heart-ache). Propulsive and magnificent with mayhem to spare, then cauterized with a bittersweet denouement. There’s never been anything like it, truly a film like no other – a real triumph.
Cinema of the highest form. No headline will ever convey the power of Parasite – it’s a masterpiece that has to be seen to be believed.
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