In the opening scene of PARASITE two siblings, Ki-woo and Ki-jo, roam a cramped apartment in search of an unprotected wifi signal. Their home is half underground, constantly reminding of their place in the world. Poorer 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 Ki-woo the chance to tutor the daughter of a wealthy couple while he’s studying abroad. Only problem is that while qualified, Ki-woo never graduated from college. With the help of photoshop magic he assumes the role of Kevin, top of his class at Oxford. Welcomed into the world of the uber-wealthy, Kevin attaches himself by the hip to their daughter. It isn’t long until the Parks seek for additional help around the house, and Kevin knows just who to call.
Thus begins an astounding balancing act first as a reverse heist film, only to transform to something much wilder. It’s a cliché to say that a film is best seen blind, but it’s never been as true as now. PARASITE is a masterclass in subverting expectations and the less you know, the better.
Up the hill, the wealthy splendour of the Park family is instantly at odds with the rest of the world. Where the Kims barely see the sky, the Parks have surrounded themselves with a resplendent garden wall embraced by sunlight. Meticulously designed, their two floor palace is a monument to opulence. Upon arrival, Kevin is silhouetted by startling daylight that floods the expanse. Through clever visual storytelling, Bong Joon-ho sets the heist in motion entirely through body language.
There is a marvelous use of geography as well. Where 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 Olympus, and a descent back home during a biblical deluge feels like stumbling into ancient folklore. The cracks in the world become more apparent, as if the social class below lived in an alternate universe entirely.
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. Alternating between condemnation and support, the story is never dictates to the audience who to root for, if anyone. The Kim family are fraudsters and criminals, but they’re driven by desperation rather than malice. At least to begin with. Like in his previous films about class warfare, 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 on the surface, yet they too are trapped in a prison of their own making. Superifically a perfect nuclear family with more money than sense, their insecurities begin to bubble as the Kim’s settle in. Mirroring the plight of both families, Bong’s camera ekes out sympathy from unexpected places. There’s a mournful desperation to nighttime sexcapades, where a partner can only whimper for their spouse to buy more drugs.
Can there be sympathy 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. Meticulously paced, the film causes snap judgements to linger like a foul odour. A single shot can last for ages allowing the audience to contemplate every ramification quick tempered choices will bring. 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, but PARASITE is also extremely witty and darkly humorous. Even a grotesque act of callous violence causes unexpected laughter due to the frankness of its depiction. There’s tension unlike in any film last year as the lay of the land becomes a maze for Bong to use every inch to his advantage.
PARASITE is a wondrous film, the kind that settles deep in your soul and refuses to budge. Deeply troubling, it paints a portrait through absurdism and fairytale of our broken society in all its glory.
The ladder of success is treacherous, and the ground below Olympus is filled with the thousands who didn’t make it there.