Bong Joon-ho’s (The Host, Snowpiercer, and Okja) latest feature film, Parasite, caught my attention during the press coverage of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, as one of the heavyweights to emerge from the contenders. After it won the coveted Palme d’Or (the highest prize awarded at the festival) though, I was surprised to see it make its way to New Zealand so quickly. I bought a ticket for the earliest screening I could make, and I was not disappointed.
Off the bat, I’m not as familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s work as I would like to, or should, be. Of his filmography, I’ve only seen Snowpiercer, a sci-fi affair that I thoroughly enjoyed. Parasite, however, is trickier to define in terms of genre. Broadly, I would describe it as a dark comedy-drama, although the ways Joon-ho manages to subtly weave between humour and drama, alongside some moments of genuine suspense and horror sometimes beggar belief.
Parasite follows an impoverished South Korean family, husband and father Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), wife Chong Sook (Jang Hye-jin) and their children, son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-Dam). Living in a dilapidated semi-basement apartment, the family struggles to make ends meet. Through a stroke of luck, Ki-woo manages to get a job teaching English to the daughter of the wealthy Park family. Before long, he has ingratiated not only himself, but his sister as well, as an art therapist for the family’s young son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon).
I went in blind and had a fantastic time, so I’d prefer to limit how much I reveal about the plot. Suffice to say that this film successfully walks a tightrope from start to finish, bringing plenty of suspense to the party, whilst constantly keeping you on your guard, just to catch you off it. This would be done through slight shifts in mood, or odd moments of humour; a prime example being when Ki-woo comments that one of Da-song’s paintings is of a chimpanzee, the latter’s shocked mother, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), quickly fires back that it’s a self-portrait. Moments like these work wonderfully to keep you guessing about the film’s tone and which side of the comedy-drama line it’s leaning more towards. The truth though emphasises the film’s social commentary, with the film channelling the dread employed by horror films like The Witch (2015), intoxicating the viewer, drawing you in like a black hole.
The film is anchored by a stellar cast, with Ki-taek and his family playing wonderfully off the wealthy and naïve Park family. Song Kang-ho is particularly enigmatic as Kim Ki-taek, delivering several moments throughout the film where you genuinely cannot guess what his next move will be. Park So-Dam is likewise entertaining as the no-nonsense sister to Choi Woo-shik’s lucky Ki-woo. The performances of each family both serve to highlight the socio-economic divide at the core of this film, and the humour caused by the unwitting schadenfreude of Mr. and Mrs. Park add to the building resentment underlying many of these performances. This resentment is further built upon by Jung Jae-il’s magnificent score, which seems to simmer and darkly bubble away just under the surface. Often this adds tension and, at times, even urgency to moments that, on face value, there should not have any.
Following on from another Korean gem, 2018’s Burning, cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo delivers once again. The dank, cramped and poorly-lit spaces of Ki–taek’s family’s semi-basement apartment are enhanced by a tighter framing. The world of Ki-taek and his family is gritty, stubborn and uncomfortable. By contrast, the Park family’s home is all bright, wide spaces, with the shots and framing to match. The house itself feels like its own isolated world, and with the almost-literal upstairs-downstairs dichotomy at play, both in and outside the house, and one cannot help but empathise with Ki-woo’s inherent envy of this easy comfort enjoyed by the Park family. In addition, the blocking and cinematography work in tandem, add to the unspoken social contracts that inherently divide the Park family and their employees/servants. This film wants you to think about this divide between rich and poor, yet it never frames either side as “the good guys”. The frustration pulsing behind Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won’s script is always present yet rarely, if ever, pushes its way to the forefront. This is a script that rewards viewers’ attention to detail, with moments great and small building towards Parasite’s inevitable (and unpredictable) crescendo.
Although it might be unfair to make this call without seeing the other participants at Cannes, to my mind, Parasite thoroughly deserved its Palme d’Or win. Haunting, unsettling, and queasily funny, Bong Joon-ho’s direction pushes every element of the film to its height, resulting in a film that slowly, surely and uncompromisingly draws its audience in. Eat the rich, says Parasite, but don’t be surprised if the grass on the other side remains greener.