April 14, 2020
Parasites. Living creatures that can only survive by leeching off other living beings. We see them as pests, threats to our own well-being, and we will cringe at the thought of them. However, when you look closer, you’ll see that parasites do what they can to survive. It’s their way of life. And, when you look even closer, you’ll realize they aren’t so far from our own societies.
Bong Joon-ho’s award-winning 2019 film “Parasite” takes the idea of cringeworthy, leeching creatures and applies it to a masterpiece critiquing class conflict in South Korea. Disclaimer: I am not Korean and can’t say I consider myself able to judge Korean culture, but Bong’s film undoubtedly has so much to say about Western society as well.
The film opens to the home of the Kim family, as son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) desperately searches their below-ground apartment for any Wi-Fi signal. The family is clearly impoverished, barely scraping by with what they have and the occasional job folding pizza boxes. Until Ki-woo’s friend, a college student, convinces him to take over his job as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family.
What begins as a simple way for a young man to (very innocently) con his way into earning money leads to his entire family taking on jobs at the Park residence: the father, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), as the personal driver and errands-runner; the daughter, Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam), as the Park son’s art therapist; and the mother, Park Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) as the wealthy family’s housekeeper.
It seems innocent at first. Ki-woo is great at English and proves himself a good tutor for the Parks’ teenage daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). But his sister’s role as an art therapist is a complete lie, and the family then must work day and night to perfect their plan and take on their secret identities to fool the wealthy family.
Then it becomes clear why Bong chose “Parasite” as the title. This poor family, who we so easily identify with from start to end, is just doing what they can to survive—and it works. The children are well-paid and well-fed by the Park family, though it’s their lies that literally help them leech off of the Parks. We get it. People do what they can to survive. On top of that, comments by the Park family in private about the Kim family’s particular smell just show us how nasty the upper-class life can be.
But it’s not just about this lower-class family leeching off others. Likewise, the only real reason the Kims can do this is because of the Parks’ inability to survive without hiring working-class individuals to do their work for them. We see in one shot that Choi Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), the mother of the Park family, can hardly run a dishwasher. And the shot tells us how pitiful her family is without the presence of a housekeeper to boss around.
Bong masters the visuals and the plot of “Parasite” with so much emotion in every moment. Not a single shot is wasted, and not once will you look away out of boredom. This film is a constant running machine of mental and emotional stimulation, working to address the issues that arise with class disparity.
It’s humorous at times until the family’s ruse can barely support itself. With sudden reveals and slow unravels, “Parasite” entrances us, capturing our desire to jump onto the screen and get everyone out of the mess they’ve created. It’s a painful yet simultaneously lighthearted story to enjoy, one that can’t be skipped. If any movie shouts “holy shit!” in an utterly shocking tone, it’s “Parasite.”