In South Korean society, stratified between extremes of wealth and poverty, educational attainment is highly prized because it is seen as the key to social mobility. Those who fail the university entrance exam and don’t make the cut are left to contemplate a future of narrow horizons, coping with emotions from resentment to self-loathing.
Bong Joon Ho guest edits the March 2020 issue of Sight & Sound, featuring 20 pages of coverage of Bong’s career, obsessions, influences, Parasite storyboards, and tips on the next generation of breakthrough filmmakers.
At the heart of Bong Joon Ho’s latest, a seriocomic microcosm of South Korean attitudes and mores that also delivers a globally resonant portrait of social anxieties in the era of late capitalism, errant son Kiwoo is squaring up to his desperation head-on. Not for him the quotidian uncertainties of the gig economy, which has his younger sister and parents in its grip. There is a way out of their cluttered, seedy, semi-basement apartment, with its view of drunks pissing in the street above. It just takes a little honest dishonesty.
Posing as a university student, Choi Wooshik’s geeky protagonist insinuates himself into the super-wealthy Park household, taking over from his student pal as handsomely rewarded English tutor to the family’s teenage daughter. It’s a task he performs with such grace that he has soon wangled jobs there for his folks too. Not that his bosses, flush with cash from Mr Park’s tech company Another Buck (!), have twigged that their new staff are actually related, even if the young son thinks they all smell weirdly alike…
Like the assorted team of robbers in some heist movie or, say, the fugitive Janet Leigh in Psycho’s opening reel, this clever, ambitious, deserving clan have us rooting for them, even though we’re seized by an ominous worry that all may not end well. The film’s first half blends pacy caper flick with a sharp satirical skewering of the lives of super-chic high earners, who need all these flunkies to tend their kids, carry their shopping, drive them around, keep their laundry fresh and their fridge heaving with bottles of Voss mineral water.
Are they the parasites living off their staff’s hard work, or are Kiwoo and family the actual dependants, like flies swarming around a hippo? Bong allows the film to have it both ways, in part because the Parks, for all their airy sense of entitlement, don’t come across as blatantly evil in the way that the ruling classes at the luxury end of the train in Snowpiercer (2013) do, or the pig-slaughtering industrialists in Okja (2017).
Given that much of the action unfolds in the confines of the Parks’ designer mansion, the film’s chamber scale would seem at first glance to be a smaller canvas for Bong, yet somehow it accesses a broader span of human understanding, as its consistently surprising narrative flirts with myriad genre expectations to deftly beguiling effect.
One key dialogue exchange stands out, as Kiwoo and his folks grab the run of the house while their employers are away, turning the posh Marie Kondo minimalism of the living room into a chaotic fresco of snacks and booze bottles. Kiwoo’s dad Kitaek, the chauffeur (played by Song Kangho, South Korean cinema’s edgy everyman), is woozy with satisfaction, noting that the Parks are “rich but nice”. His mother Chungsook (a no-nonsense Chang Hyaejin), the housekeeper who has ousted the place’s previous matronly retainer, is having none of it: “They’re nice because they’re rich!” she snaps. Minutes later, it all escalates; hubby has his wife by the throat, threatening to punch her face in. Has his patriarchal authority truly been so impugned? Is this for real, or in jest? The actors are so brilliant it’s hard to tell.
South Korea 2019
Certificate 15 132m 9s
Director Bong Joon-ho
Ki-taek Song Kang-ho
Mr. Park Lee Sun-kyun
Yeon-kyo, Mr. Park’s wife Cho Yeo-jeong
Ki-woo, Ki-taek’s son Choi Woo-shik
Ki-jung, Ki-taek’s daughter Park So-dam
Chung-sook, Ki-taek’s wife Chang Hyae-jin
Moon-gwang, Park family housekeeper Lee Jung-eun
Da-hye, Mr. Park’s daughter Jung Ziso
Da-song, Mr. Park’s son Jung Hyeon-jun
We will eventually realise that such moments cannily foreshadow future developments, yet they also leave the audience unsure how to react. Elsewhere too the class tensions reveal seemingly exposed nerves, whether it’s Mr Park (a suave Lee Sunkyun) musing on how poor people smell like old radishes, or Kitaek crossing the servant-master line by suggesting his boss is in thrall to his wife’s penchant for displays of wealth. How to react? Your mileage may vary, but it’s a sure sign of Bong’s evident mastery that, in a film so rigorously plotted and designed, he somehow knows it’s those moments when he lets go of the controls that give the film its heart and soul.
Maybe it’s this extra level of accomplishment in Parasite that made Bong his nation’s first Palme d’Or winner and bagged him a shelf’s worth of critics’ awards – plus boffo box office, let’s not forget. He has always been attuned to the possibilities of hybrid story forms, whether it’s turning police procedural or monster movie into social study (Memories of Murder, The Host) or shaping contemporary effects-driven spectacle to ask tough questions about societal cohesion or environmental disquiet (Snowpiercer, Okja).
Here, though, the narrative shapeshifting – from tense thriller mode to expertly choreographed farce and crunching comic-book violence, even within the same scene – reaches a new level of slinky panache. The sheer confidence of those transitions is a marvel, founded on a rock-solid grasp of upstairs-downstairs psychogeography in both the house’s floor plan and the contours of Seoul’s social divides.
It all plays out in the context of brilliant production design, where snooping sight lines down staircases in the elegant Park residence facilitate developing dramatic intrigues, and much is made of the contrast between the glass-walled living room’s view to sunshine and greenery and the grim outlook from the servants’ semi-basement flat, tellingly open to the local council’s blast of roach-killing fumigating spray.
Still, for all the abundant pleasures afforded by such mastery of construction, the clincher is in the film’s deliberately stinging moments of uncertainty. One such scene has Kiwoo, labouring under the weight of this whole edifice of chicanery he’s assembled, gazing out on the Parks’ glittering afternoon garden party, populated by beautiful, effortlessly cool rich people having a beautiful, effortlessly cool time. “Will I ever fit in?” he wonders. And with his sigh of profoundly unanswerable melancholy, the film provides its thematic takeaway.
It’s hard, then, not to draw connections with South Korea’s other recent cinematic masterpiece, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018), since both films are evidently powered by a deep unease at their nation’s social divisions. Where Lee’s intensifying class antipathies and resentments subtly nudge us towards an abyss of existential anxiety, Bong’s harder-edged plotting is of a very different storytelling character. Yet its slick, knowing aplomb ultimately points us to a chastening picture of the politics of envy as a zero-sum game. For all its uproarious highlights, Parasite departs with a heartbreaking coda, leaving its characters doing a life term in the prison of their discontents. Both titles, though, offer further evidence, as if any were actually needed, of South Korean cinema’s facility for turning out absolutely canonical films on the world cinema stage.