Director – Bong Joon-ho
Cast – Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Chang Hyae-jin, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Jung-eun
Depending on how you perceive the world, Bong Joon-ho’s grand validation by the West can either be appreciated as a long-overdue acknowledgement of his formidable filmography, or it can be dismissed as yet another sign of the Oscars’ irrelevance in identifying true legends. I find myself somewhere in between.
Shall I let the pomp and pageantry of the Academy Awards convince me that my respect for Bong has in some way been inadequate for all these years, or should I simply ignore the attention he’s getting all of a sudden, convinced that America is simply late to the party?
Watch the Parasite trailer here
Director Bong, as he’s affectionately (and reverentially) addressed by his cast and crew, has made four bona fide classics in his career; each of them of a different genre. His 2003 monster movie, The Host, was seen as an admonishment of American arrogance; in Okja, he skewered the food industry like a spicy tikka; and in Snowpiercer, his finest film, Director Bong confronted the notion of God.
But unlike his contemporaries, Park Chan-wook or Kim Ki-duk, Bong has largely operated in genre cinema, bringing his instantly recognisable idiosyncrasies — shocking tonal shifts, razor-sharp satire and delightfully dark humour — to subjects that other directors would typically address with solemnity.
The genre-fluid Parasite is like a greatest hits record — cool, clinical, and incisive. It is an outlet for him to address all of his anxieties as a filmmaker, but also as a citizen of the modern world.
The theme of capitalism is once again brought up as Bong pits the rich Park family against the poor Kim clan, peppering the film with references to Native Americans and building towards an operatic crescendo in which class warfare takes on the form of a literal battle. After previously tackling climate change in Snowpiercer, Bong once again highlights the importance of the crisis, by shedding light on how it affects the rich and the poor differently. While the Park family is only slightly inconvenienced by a torrential downpour, the Kims’ entire existence is threatened when the same downpour floods their subterranean home.
Sometimes, Bong makes his points rather bluntly, like the scene in which the patriarch of the Kim family, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), is barely able to hide his anger when the matriarch of the Park family, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), says that the rains have cleared the skies. Mere hours ago, his home was submerged; Yeon-gyo’s apathy towards Ki-taek’s plight is more insulting to him than when she scrunches up her nose at his ‘poor person smell’.
The scene takes place inside a car, which reminded me of a similar moment in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, in which Ranveer Singh’s Murad is reminded of the metaphorical distance between himself and the rich woman he’s driving, despite their physical proximity to each other.
Ki-taek works as a chauffeur for the Parks, after having successfully infiltrated the wealthy family with his wife and kids. Both clans rely upon the other; while the Parks wouldn’t be able to function without the invisible services provided by the Kims, the Kims depend on the Parks’ money to survive. There are no heroes or villains in the film; everyone’s a parasite.
Bong relies on his craft to make confrontational statements about class — his use of staircases as a visual metaphor for social mobility is remarkable. Such is the regularity with which he cuts to a character either climbing or descending stairs, that Parasite begins to resemble a sort of cinematic Ludo. The Parks’ magnificent bungalow is accessed after a steady uphill climb, while the Kims literally live underneath the rich and the powerful; bereft of not only wealth and opportunities, but also sunlight.
The Parks’ home, wonderfully constructed by Bong’s production designer, Lee Ha-jun, has several internal staircases, perhaps suggesting that even within certain socioeconomic groups, maintaining one’s position is an equally cutthroat business. The film is shot like a thriller, and despite his typical tonal transitions, Bong alternately conjures action sequences out of mundane domesticity, and transforms verbal exchanges into elaborate psychological con-games. For one scene, involving a kitchen table and near-silence, Bong seems to have exhumed the corpse of Alfred Hitchcock and drained it of every last ounce of inspiration.
Also read: Roma movie review: Alfonso Cuaron has made one of the best films of the decade; a cinematic game-changer. 5 stars
In Parasite, Bong doesn’t appear to be expressing empathy for the poor, like, say, Alfonso Cuaron did in Roma. Nor does he seem to be pointing fingers at the rich. He is, instead, questioning the very nature of mankind; its self-centred ingratitude and its propensity to create divisions and to resort to violence.
I have now seen Parasite twice. A third viewing has, in the meantime, been scheduled. But even a dozen repeat viewings would be inadequate to unravel its many (hidden) layers. It’s the best film of 2019, by far — an almost religious experience, deserving of a pilgrimage to the theatre.