Cast: Song Kang-ho Lee Sun-kyun Cho Yeo-jeong Choi Woo-shik Park So-dam. Directed by Bong Joon-ho.
Bong Joon-ho famously said that once you overcome the “one inch tall barrier of subtitles”, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films. We at No Majesty have no aversion to a little reading with our watching, and given that — unlike the Academy — we like to catch all of the best picture nominees before casting judgement, we gave Parasite our full attention.
To know too much is to spoil the fun of the film, but the basic, early-on details are as follows: The Kim family live in a basement level apartment in the slums of South Korea, but when son Ki-woo gets a job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family, the opportunity for all of them to infiltrate becomes too hard to pass up.
It’s no small feat that a Korean film about poor people wishing they were rich people is storming the academy awards, in fact, it’s something to marvel at. US film awards have historically shunned subtitled films unless directed by an American, and given that Bong is known for his films having a socio-political underpinning, it’s even more impressive that it has seen awards glory.
Bong’s seventh film is a triumph top-to-bottom, and there is no point burying the lead. Having made Barking Dogs Never Bite, Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother and Snowpiercer, here Bong is setting his sights at the gap between rich and poor in South Korea but without the simple “rich bad, poor good” that we so often see. There are shades of grey in this film.
The cast are all brilliant, and it’s difficult to fully single any one person out. Though it must be said Park So-dam as the daughter of the Kim family Kim Ki-jeong is a fascinating watch. In many ways her performance is a lot like watching someone like Rooney Mara, modulating between performance within performance and constantly changing emotional registers.
The main star of the film, save for the sure-footed direction of Bong, is that of the production design. Not only is the house in which the main action is set a perfect encapsulation of lusting over a property that represents more, but much like the film as a whole, it’s one that holds many things to be revealed. Moreover, the basement is a fantastic vehicle for showing something without saying it. The Kim family are barely keeping themselves above water financially, and in their basement apartment they are just about able to see at street level.
What also helps is a score by Jung Jae-il that never goes for the obvious notes or emotional registers, instead opting for a more amusing and playful tone to underline the film’s more playful nature. Moreover, the film’s ability to talk of what is and is not good with both money and not having money might prove to be deceptive to some. The film doesn’t reveal itself quickly — it is a slow burn that eventually gives way to it’s darker elements.
Plus, there is even more to be gained when watching it more than once, given that the film is full of symmetry and parallels, a film about performing, and pretending. It’s not just acting, but the veneer we put forward in the hopes of hiding who we really are. The parasite of the title is never fully explained; is it the poor burrowing into the lives of the wealthy who invite them into their homes for work, or is it the rich that sit on the flesh of society, eating away and causing nothing but pain?
In his fantastic film, Bong doesn’t have any easy answers, nor is he interested in giving them, but rather offers a typical Bong Joon-ho response, a shrug of the shoulders, and a casual “you tell me”. It gets under your skin, and stays there, lingering like a… well, like a parasite.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.