Parasite or Gisaengchung is a South Korean dark comedy-thriller from Bong Joon-ho (Okja ((2017)) that won the grandest award at the Cannes Film Festival 2019 – Palme d’Or. I can now happily report that this was a much deserved win and Parasite will be my best film of the year. This film must be seen to be believed – it has been a long time since I enjoyed a movie that much. In Parasite, a Kim family, consisting of a mother, father, daughter and son, is unemployed, poor and living in a basement of one derelict building. Their son, Kim Ki-woo, meets with his old friend and the latter offers him a chance to tutor for awhile one girl of a rich Park family. Kim Ki-woo successfully “infiltrates” the rich Park family, presenting himself as a knowledgeable and strict teacher, and, while doing so, does not forget about his family at home, trying to also secure for them employment positions in the Park family. What follows is the unbelievable chain of events with twists along the way. Director Bong Joon-ho is both subtle and outrageous in his direction and writing, as he tries to satirise a situation whereby two opposite segments of society (the rich and the poor) make a contact that leads to unexpected reactions and a delightful whirlpool of the funny and the macabre. Exquisitely and stylishly presented, Parasite is both darkly hilarious and delightfully shocking, setting a new sky-high standard for black comedy – the style of Bong Joon-ho.
The opening shot of the movie paints a thousand words – there are socks hanging, drying in the basement of one building. An unemployed family lives there, finding it hard to live in the cramped quarters with no Wi-Fi or other comforts they desire so much. The film may start as something from Koreeda’s Shoplifters (2018), with one cunning family trying to get by in life, but it soon morphs into something different, reminding of the best from Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster (2015), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)). When the son of the family Kim Ki-woo is introduced to a rich Park family and starts tutoring their daughter, he knows he cannot just let this “one-in-a-lifetime” opportunity go by. Bong Joon-ho makes a movie about a family of social climbers, while satirising the gap and misunderstanding between the rich and poor social classes. However, we hardly feel being lectured on the social divide, because the film is presented with so much charm and style, it is impossible to feel anything but joy and wonder at the events that begin to happen. At the heart of the film is a deep desire of the Kim family to prosper, even if that desire to get richer can only be fulfilled through a theatre of pretence and manipulation. While the Kim family is put in a spotlight for its ability to act, pretend and blend into their new surroundings, the affairs of the Park family are also being ridiculed on the basis of the extent the parents are prepared to go to provide the best for their children. In this way, Parasite satirises the frivolity of the rich (who live in an ivory tower) and the desperation of the poor (who are capable of the most outrageous scheming and duplicity). The clever thing Bong Joon-ho does is introduce a satire within a satire, and we soon notice the double standards of the poor Kim family too, while we remain sympathetic to their plight.
South Korean directors are a cinematic force to be reckoned with, for example, see Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) or Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018). The cinematography of Parasite is as sumptuous as any film of Park Chan-wook, and the production design (whether the basement house of the Kim family or the minimalistic architectural design of the Parks’ home) is compelling. A slightly theatrical presentation of the story in Parasite only emphasises the film’s main message – this will be a story of pretence and manipulation. This is even more so since, similar to Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, Parasite is all about fortune suddenly smiling on people who are making their first steps into the world foreign to them, with them questioning themselves and whether they really belong there. It is through this contact with other people’s riches (the re-working of the upstairs/downstairs theme) that humour and thriller both emerges and merges, and realism is being slowly displaced to give way to the fantastical, which is, as it turns out, the point of the story.
However, there is a downside to such a mix of different genres and ideas that Parasite displays. In the second part of the movie, there is a feeling as though the director plays with different ideas and concepts on how to end the story, dropping some ideas and picking up others as the script progresses, and, decides to end the movie on a different topic than the one he began with. That means that, in the end, Parasite is not as coherent of a movie as may be desired, even though it is still a great film. Near the end, Parasite manipulates our expectations to delightfully shocking results, and “comic” thrills are virtually guaranteed.
At the end of Parasite, I did not know whether to laugh or to cry and I guess this is a sign of originality. Some parallels can be drawn with the “weird” work of Lanthimos, but Parasite defies strict categorisation (it is as satirical and witty as, but funnier than, Lanthimos, and just as outrageous as Tarantino). Representing a delightfully odd situational black comedy with unbelievable turns, Parasite is an example of that sumptuous cinema at its most speculative, imaginative and wondrous, coming as close to pure enjoyment as any film can get. 10/10