A working-class family insinuates themselves into the household of a rich family.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Starring Song Kang-ho, Cho Yeo-jeong, and Choi Woo-shik
Review by Jon Kissel
Whatever they are, the Kims come into contact with the Parks through a friend of son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). The friend can no longer tutor the Parks’ teenage daughter (Park So-dam) and he wants Ki-woo to step in, partly because he knows Ki-woo needs the work and partly because the friend wants to leave the daughter with someone he considers harmless, as the friend is infatuated with her. With some help in document forgery from artistically-inclined sister Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), Ki-woo easily aces the interview with the spacey and trusting Park matriarch Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), and immediately recommends Da-hye as an art therapist for young Da-sung (Jung Hyeon-jun). With two Kim family members in the Park house, it’s only a matter of time before father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) are brought in as a driver and housekeeper, though the old driver and the old housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) must first be forced out.
Fitting for a film about a con, little is real or genuine in Parasite. Plotwise, characters are constantly lying to each other, but themes of trust and the privilege of trusting frequently arise. Da-hye expertly plays on Yeon-gyo’s fears about Da-sung’s psyche before she even knows Yeon-gyo has those fears, and then, through more buzzwords and psychobabble, makes herself indispensable to the Park family, or at least the part of it who’s pretending to be a tortured artist, as Da-sung is. Fulfilling a need that doesn’t exist: the story of how the rich spend money. Walls aren’t really walls, stones aren’t really stones, lines aren’t really lines. The Parks believe themselves to be savvy consumers who only pay for the best, but they do no follow-up and are easily satisfied. The Kims, made so by their desperate circumstances, are perfect con artists and the Parks, made so by their bottomless resources, are perfect marks, forming a symbiotic relationship that’s mutually beneficial despite its false origins.
For the god of Parasite, the great sin isn’t lying to rich people or poisoning a maid with an allergen. What spins the film out into chaos and its bloody conclusion is the Kims pretending to be the Parks, embodied by their moving in when the Parks go on vacation. This blurring puts them in contact with the last symbiotic hanger-on of the Parks, maid Gook Moon-gwong, who has… left some valuables in the house that she was unable to collect after her firing. Like good working class dupes, the Kims and Moon-gwong go to war with each other for the affections of the Parks, a conflict that will ultimately swoop them all up.
Bong is mindful of every detail in Parasite, making this film the heir of Christopher Nolan or David Fincher. While Parasite is lighter than all of Nolan’s and Fincher’s films, it does share a sense of purpose in every statement and prop. As props, lines, and motifs reemerge and reoccur, the film does begin to feel like it’s on rails, like Bong is whispering in the viewer’s ear to pay attention to this or that. The film also loses any subtlety on its class metaphors, both in the long scene of the Kims drunkenly recapping the film and in the increasingly prevalent sniffing scenes. These are small flaws that make the film’s point too aggressively and distract from the emotional stakes, but that’s not to say that there are no emotional stakes. Parasite is satirical and contains some amount of distancing from its characters-as-themes, but there is a cumulative weight to the events of the film that keeps pushing the characters forward to their unhappy ends. That near-Biblical inevitability, manifested in tossed-off hip checks and whispers of peach fuzz, gives a fun and stylish film a tragic bent, as purposeful as every other aspect of Parasite.
While it’s always hammering away at its broad economic points, Parasite wouldn’t be as successful as it is if it didn’t also get something true on an individual level. All con stories are going to have a whiff of imposter syndrome about them, but Parasite in particular dines out on this phenomenon. Ki-woo lives in this zone. He is the only one who seems to have pretensions of social ascension, as his parents and his sister seem committed to the ‘no plan’ philosophy that Ki-taek espouses. The rest wouldn’t torture themselves about fitting in at a fancy dinner party, in the way that Ki-woo does. His feeling out of place is correct and earned, as he is not supposed to be there, but the actor plays it with an earnestness that cuts through his specific circumstances into the universal feeling that is embodied by that scene. What do all these attractive people I’m surrounded by know that I don’t? What, if anything, is beneath their courtesy? Parasite largely exists in a rarefied symbolism, and getting onto a human level is a vital respite from the oft-heavy class considerations.
At one of Bong’s many acceptance speeches, he implored the audience to get over the one-inch barrier of subtitles and discover a new world of cinema. That’s probably the noblest sentiment to come out of an acceptance speech in a long time, and a central one to film in general. Parasite and films like it from around the world get me closer to the culture they take place in, and serve as the kind of educational and empathy-building experience that movies are supposed to be. It’s always clear that Parasite is primarily for the filmgoer who’s marinated in Korean culture their whole lives. It’s not opaque for the American viewer, but it’s not explicitly for them. Parasite does a lot of things, but one of my favorite things it does is how it places America as just one more country, indistinguishable from Malta or Burkina Faso. Movies broaden the world even as they shrink it. I love them. A-