By Poulomi Das Jan. 31, 2020
Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is an acidic horror comedy that points a sharpened knife to the biggest parasite of them all – modern society. Much of the film is a reflection on the aftermath of the unequal distribution of wealth that creates competition even between shades of poverty.
Last year, Parasite met with unprecedented success. As it became the first Korean film to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes and then boasted a history-making run in the US. Director Bong Joon-Ho offered an explanation for the film’s cachet. Speaking at a film festival in France, the director claimed that the reason Parasite’s themes have appealed universally, irrespective of barriers of language, cultural specificity, or borders is because “we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism”. There’s arguably no better way to encapsulate the intent, experience, and the effect of Parasite, an acidic horror comedy that points a sharpened knife to the biggest parasite of them all – modern society.Like Lee Chang-dong’s masterful Burning (2018), Parasite is heavily invested in disguising the turbulence of class warfare and the undercurrents of a societal segregation-induced isolation in the form of an enigmatic, nightmarish thriller. At first glance, the film seems like it is about a lower-class family deceiving an upper-class family, the same way Burning looked like it was a film centred on the psychological disintegration of a jilted lover. Yet, these are just the contours of both the narratives – they don’t define them.
Parasite also continues Bong’s preoccupation with opening his films in the exact location where he ends them, signalling in part, how easy it is for circumstances to change even when the world around remains unchanged. The film’s first shot is of a partially cramped underground basement where a window overlooks a neglected street – the residence of the destitute Kim family. When we first meet them, the four family members – mother, father, teenage son, and a 20-something daughter – are fussing over their lack of connection with the outside world. They’re talking about not being able to get a working WiFi signal but it might as well have been a comment on how excluded their lives are from the society at large. Eventually, the WhatsApp messages start coming in, but only after they crouch on all fours and press their phones against the bathroom ceiling. That they are on the fringe of poverty, the noose ever so close, is evident when the family is involved in the back-breaking work of folding pizza boxes for a food delivery service, and are still fined a 10 per cent for not folding them well enough. They can’t even afford an argument.
Things momentarily look up when a friend of Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-Shik), recommends him as his replacement English tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Park family. Ki-Woo doesn’t have a degree but that doesn’t seem to bother his prospects given that the gullible matriarch of the Park family believes in trusting people she knows.
Not only does he land the well-paying job, he also manufactures a series of ruthless scenarios that ensure that his whole family ends up on the payroll of the Parks. All of them conveniently hide the fact that they’re actually related. Ki-Woo’s sister, Ki-Jung (Park So-Dam) becomes the art therapy tutor for the family’s younger, PTSD-riddled son. His father Ki-Taek (a fine Song Kang-Ho) replaces the family’s chauffeur who is framed by Ki-Jung for an overreach he didn’t commit. And their mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-Jin) takes over as the family housekeeper.
On the surface, the Park family, consisting of a father, mother, elder daughter, and younger son, is an exact replica of the Kims. Yet there’s a world of distance between the two families. Unlike the Kims, the Parks are unbelievably well-off and exist on a higher ladder of social hierarchy and self-absorbed ignorance. They live in a glass mansion with CCTV-cameras and a manicured front lawn that makes it all seem like their own private island.
Parasite is a reflection on the aftermath of the unequal distribution of wealth that creates competition even between shades of poverty.
It’s the collision of these two families who would’ve otherwise never crossed paths had they not lived in a society that feeds off their interdependence, that forms the central conflict of the film. Much of Parasite is a reflection on the aftermath of the unequal distribution of wealth that creates competition even between shades of poverty.
To that end, Bong uses every frame and interaction between its protagonists to frame a chilling cyclical nature of exploitation. But it’s elevated by a plot twist and an introduction of a third family, who threaten to overwrite the pre-existing structures of submission and dominance. The Kims discover that there might be an existence even more unforgiving than the one they live and promptly turn into a version of the Parks, creating a distance that places them on a literal and metaphorical high ground.
Yet it’s not as if they’re redeemed of being looked down upon: There’s a moment in Parasite’s climax when Ki-taek is moved to an act of physical violence when it dawns on him that any presumed upper-hand of their social positioning only matters to them; for the Parks, there’s no distinction between the people who exist to serve them. Parasite’s last shot, swelling in a depressing kind of ambition that is meant to be crushed by the cruelties of class hierarchy, only distills that sentiment. It’s a gripping, existential, horrifying study of a nightmarish world – except that it is true.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.