Parasite, the runaway hit from South Korea, has just nabbed four Oscars at the 2020 Academy awards, including Best Picture. It is the first foreign language film to win Best Picture in 92 years. But does Parasite deserve all these accolades? KJ McDougall reviews the film to find out.
So is Parasite as good as people are saying?
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-won, Parasite is as insidious as its lead characters. It is a film that slips inside your brain and doesn’t leave. Instead, the film and the questions it poses, fester and grow the more you think about them. It is a beautiful depiction of some of man kinds uglier natures.
Frequent Joon-ho collaborator Song Kang-ho, stars alongside Jang Hye-jin, Choi Woo-shik, and Park So-dam as the Kim family. The Kims live in an impoverished section of an unnamed city in South Korea. There is something immediately both pitiful and charming about this family. It is clear that they love each other, but are also willing to cut corners. The openness with which the whole family deals with ethically or morally questionable acts reveals an uneasy truth; we aren’t sure how far this family would be willing to go to live comfortably.
Bong Joon-ho leans into this sense unease and allows it to permeate the entire film. The viewer is never quite sure where the film is headed or what could happen next. Nothing ever feels calm or safe. Bong balances complex character conflicts, juxtaposing thematic elements, and the constant ebb and flow of suspense and mundane plot points. The film is wrought with such duality that it creates a disquiet in the viewer.
When the opportunity arises, the Kims con their way into the lives of the rich and affluent Park family. Taking on various jobs in the household; driver, tutor, housekeeper, and art therapist – manipulating events to maintain their hold on their new jobs, and the Parks.
Supporting cast members Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong play the roles of the Parks to pitch perfection. They move with a self assured sense of dignity and speak with a warm affability. Their wealth has afforded them a sense of safety and security that makes them vulnerable to the schemes of the Kims. They are sheep unaware they are surrounded by wolves.
Their naive gullibility, however, soon reveals a smug disconnect from the real world. The Parks are totally reliant on their servants and yet dismissive of them has human beings. In one scene Dong-ik, father of the Park family, tells his wife how bothered he is that his driver (Mr. Kim) smells like the subway. He is offended by the mere existence of the other man’s poverty. Yet, despite the deception at the center of their employment the Kim family show themselves to be diligent workers. They serve the Parks faithfully and skillfully. Which begins to highlight more of the aforementioned duality. It is unclear who we are rooting for, if anyone. Who is the titular parasite?
Bong makes use of every tool at his disposal. The physical world constantly plays a role that is reflective of the characters. Windows and stairs separate classes of people, passing through doorways lead to opportunities and developments. The Kim family home is cramped and asymmetrical – as if the apartment where crammed into whatever space in the city was left, molding around it. The lighting is grey and grimy but everything is exposed. The Park home, on the other hand, is angular, open, and balanced. It is a harmonious place filled with light, but where the shadows are deep and impenetrable. While the film is filled with depth, it never over plays this hand. There are no lingering shots that scream “this is a metaphor” Bong, plays his hand deftly. Each scene, every line, fits together like a jigsaw puzzle- not a second of film is wasted.
Parasite is a densely layered film that moves with the ease of a comedy or tense thriller. And often it is both – while simultaneously being a family drama and satirical look at capitalism. It packs so much into such a short space it is nothing short of astounding that it works as well as it does. It is never afraid to get weird or take a breath when the story requires it. It’s pace is as smooth as every other aspect of the production.
Parasite is unquestionably one of the best films of the year and easily deserving of the awards it has received worldwide. Bong’s work is yet another great example of the quality of work that has been coming out of South Korea since the late 90’s. This film is one of the only award contenders this past year that I feel compelled to revisit. It feels like there are more secrets Bong has hidden in the shadows of the Park home. And indeed he has started on a miniseries (also called Parasite) that will explore this world a little further on HBO. I can’t help but worry about this though. Why mess with a good thing? And this movie is indeed a very good thing.