In PARASITE’s opening scene, two siblings, Kim Ki-woo and Ki-jo, roam a cramped apartment searching for an unprotected wi-fi signal. Their home is half underground, constantly reminding of their place in the world. Lower than poor, their only window outside barely peaks above ground level while drunkards literally piss on them. A found signal calls for celebration: shared cans of cheap beer for dinner.
To this squalor comes an unexpected opportunity. A friend from school offers the son a chance to tutor the daughter of a wealthy couple while he’s studying abroad. The only problem is that while qualified, the son has never graduated from college. With the help of photoshop magic, he assumes the role of Kevin, top of his class. Welcomed into the uber-wealthy world, Kevin attaches himself by the hip to their daughter to ensure his place for good. It isn’t long until the family is seeking additional help around the house, and Kevin knows just the people for it.
From there begins an astounding balancing act where director Bong Joon-ho sets up a class rivalry via a reverse heist film, only to pull the rug out from the viewer at every opportunity. It’s a cliché to say that it’s a movie that should be seen blind, but it’s never been as accurate as it is now. PARASITE is a masterclass in subverting expectations, and the less you know, the better.
Living up on the hill, the Park family’s wealthy splendor is instantly at odds with the rest of the world. Where the Kims barely can see the sky from their concrete hell, the Parks are surrounded by a resplendent garden wall and embraced by ever-present sunlight. Meticulously designed, their two-floor palace is a monument to luxury. When Kevin first arrives, the startling daylight silhouettes his figure in the expansive living room. Through creative visual storytelling, Bong Joon-ho sets the heist in motion entirely through body language.
There is excellent use of geography. While SNOWPIERCER was a horizontal film, emphasizing the choice between back and forward, PARASITE is entirely vertical. Every act of the film serves as a step in the ladder towards perceived salvation and wealth. The house on the hill becomes a distant Olympus, and a descent back home during a biblical deluge has the air of ancient folklore.
Judging by its title, PARASITE might at first appear a derogatory term towards the impoverished protagonists. But Bong Joon-ho’s script, co-written with Han Jin-won, refuses to allow for such simplistic answers. PARASITE alternates between condemnation and support, yet the story never dictates who to root for, if anyone. The Kim family are fraudsters out to commit a crime, but they are driven by desperation more than malice. At least in the beginning. Like in his previous films about class warfare, most notably SNOWPIERCER, Bong Joon-ho astutely observes that power has a way of corrupting anyone. Even the tiniest taste of it becomes intoxicating, as PARASITE proves multiple times.
Money is like an iron; it smooths out the wrinkles, says the mother (Chang Hyae-jin). The Parks appear kind and understanding on the surface, yet they are prisoners of their own making. On the surface they’re a perfect nuclear family with more money than sense, yet their insecurities begin to boil as the Kim’s start to settle in. Bong’s camera mirrors the plight of both families, eking out sympathy from unexpected places. There’s mournful desperation to a nighttime makeout session, where a partner in the throes of passion can only request their spouse for more drugs.
Is there sympathy to be had for wealthy ennui? Maybe not. But Bong will not judge them for it either. Like a cinematic Rorschach test, PARASITE transforms before anyone who views it. Political and economic backgrounds will color the experience heavily, and the film has meticulous pacing to eschew snap judgments. A single shot can last for ages, forcing the viewer to contemplate every quick-tempered choice’s ramifications fully. Even as the father (a superb Choi Woo-shik) pretends like their machinations are the universe righting itself, nothing is ever as simple as initially appears.
It may sound dark and depressing, and Bong certainly takes audiences to those places too. But PARASITE is also extremely witty and slathered in dark humor. Even a grotesque act of callous violence can cause unexpected laughter due to how frank the depiction is. There’s also tension unlike seen in any film last year. Once Bong sets the lay of the land, he uses every inch of it to his advantage.
PARASITE is a wondrous film, the kind that settles deep in your soul and refuses to budge. It toys with your emotions like a cat, yet you can only ask for more in the end. Deeply troubling, it paints a portrait through absurdism and fairy tale to highlight our broken society in all its glory.
The ladder of success is treacherous, and the ground below Olympus is paved with thousands who didn’t make it there.