For its deliciously dark wit and genre-bending ingenuity, Parasite has just won four out of a potential six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Only ten foreign-language films have previously been nominated for Best Picture and none have won before. It is also the first time since Marty in 1955 that the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes has progressed to a Best Picture Oscar. In his acceptance speech for Best Director, Bong Joon-ho not only thanked Quentin Tarantino for championing his work, but also payed tribute to Martin Scorsese, confessing that when he was young he “carved deep into my heart” and even quoting him directly - “The most personal is the most creative.” Bong then graciously surrendered the stage to two of his leading actors - Jeong-eun Lee, who said she felt “a very opportune moment in history is happening right now,” and Hye-jin Jang, who praised Bong's “crazy hair, the way he talks, the way he walks ... and especially the way he directs.”
At a time when the 400 richest Americans have more money than the bottom 150 million, a crooked billionaire real estate developer occupies the White House, and a leading candidate for the US presidency is proposing a wealth tax, it is hardly surprising that Parasite has already become one of the highest grossing foreign-language films in the US. Even billionaire financier Ray Dalio, founder of hedge fund manager Bridgewater Associates, is alarmed about what has become of the disappearing middle class. In a widely discussed social media post, Dalio said the “world has gone mad and the system is broken.” Ultra-low interest rates are punishing savers and rewarding borrowers since money has become essentially free for those who already have plenty of it, but “unavailable to those who don’t.” The same wealth-gap has emerged in South Korea, a country that used to rank near the bottom of thirty-six nations in terms of income inequality, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “At the heart of the film is this critique of capitalism that is not unique to Korea,” commented Jason Bechervaise, a professor of entertainment and arts at South Korea’s Soongsil Cyber University. “There is a lot of anger out there, and Parasite captures this in a manner that is wholly unpredictable.”
Parasite has a simple message, perfectly calibrated for 2020 - life is rarely fair and inequality is increasing everywhere. Why should one family live in a mansion, while another inhabits a squalid basement, folding pizza boxes for money, and scrounging free WiFi signals? What would happen if Family No. 2 literally moved in on family No. 1? This is the essential conceit of Parasite. The setting could just have easily been Auckland, San Francisco, or London - indeed, any large city in which the growing gap between the rich and poor is sparking major resentment. The only difference is that this movie takes place in South Korea, a nation whose rapid economic development has been dominated by a handful of family-controlled conglomerates and the poverty rate is rapidly expanding to American levels.
There are few movies like Parasite being made these in Hollywood days. In a celluloid landscape dominated by comic-book blockbusters, re-booted franchises, and opulent Netflix Originals, domestic social satires about class and inequality are becoming as rare as monarch butterflies, largely because myopic movie moguls seem to believe small-scale films no longer belong in theatres. They simply assume they are better suited to those massive, liquid-crystal TV monitors that seem like someone has parked an SUV in the living room, while modern television networks imagine films like Parasite should be stretched out to an Emmy-winning, boxed DVD set. It is also the reason why critics take to such films with all the fervour of an alcoholic downing a double Scotch after Dry January. Dulled senses tingle once more as idling brains spark up and audiences succumb to the old-fashioned power of pure narrative story-telling. There are no ridiculously acrobatic car chases, deafening explosions, or CGI enhanced intergalactic battles in Parasite. Instead, Bong transports us into the mundane lives of two Korean families who become increasingly entwined. One family lives in poverty in a squalid subterranean flat at the wrong end of the wrong end of town. The other enjoys a life of luxury in their architect-designed home, the sort of glass and concrete social statement that attracts new money like an auction of awful modern art. According to the unwritten rules of social engagement, as decreed by the pitiless market economics of corporate capitalism, such families should never cross paths.
The unemployed family live together in a squalid and chaotic basement flat, with the teenage son and daughter holding their smartphones up to the ceiling to pinch the non-password-protected wifi from neighbours and nearby businesses. Veteran Korean movie star Song Kang-ho plays Kim Ki-taek, the patriarch of the 'have-not' household as a laid-back idler who can look back on a twenty-year business career notable for its remarkable consistency - whatever enterprise he runs inevitably goes pear-shaped. His son is an equally shiftless young dude who has flunked the university entrance exams four times and his daughter Ki-jung is a cool customer with an artistic gift for web-based fraud. His wife and erstwhile hammer-throwing track and field medallist Chung-sook is as unemployed as her husband. This is a family who never expected much from life, but even their hopes have turned out to be a pipe dream. To make matters worse, a local drunk has identified their basement window as an alfresco urinal.
Meanwhile, over on easy street, the freshly minted, slightly younger Park family are enjoying the life of Reilly. The Park patriarch is as successful at business as Ki-Taek is a failure. His IT firm has gone global and the money is rolling in faster than a Bondi Beach surfer pursued by a shark. His beautiful wife and three dogs flit in and out of their beautiful house while their two beautiful kids are supervised by their seemingly loyal housekeeper Moon-gwang. Last year's Roma was set in a similar milieu, albeit fifty years earlier and in Mexico City. These two polarised families of the same size may live in the same city, but remain worlds apart, until a friend of Ki-Woo's suggests he take over his holiday job tutoring the Park's spoiled teenage daughter. Ki-Woo assumes he will never get the gig, but has failed to take into account Mrs. Park's naivety, his mother's eye for the main chance, and the potential benefits of harnessing his sister's artistic talents as a manufacturer of fake degree certificates. Posing as a college student, Ki-woo starts to tutor the Park's teenage daughter Da-hye, whose instant crush on him is something the charming Ki-woo does nothing to discourage. Before he knows it, he has managed to worm his way into this nouveau-rich sanctum, wandering around in the eerily spotless house, and going way beyond his strictly academic brief with the Da-hye. When the delicate, unworldly mistress of the house, Yeon-kyo asks if this smart young man might also recommend an art tutor for her traumatised young son Da-song, he passes off his sister as the cousin of a friend and her brazen grifter-sense of exactly when and how to appear confidently arrogant bags her the job. These manipulative interlopers cunningly contrive to get the family chauffeur fired and replaced with their dad, then dislodge the housekeeper and install their placidly smiling mum in her place.
This is far from your average social drama film, but rather a bizarre black comedy about social status, materialism, the patriarchal family unit, and a class of people who eagerly embrace the idea of leasing out servants. It goes much further than such movies as Revolutionary Road or Shoplifters, that gradually morphs into thriller territory. It is a weirdly potent admixture and extremely well directed, as Bong's camera often lingers on a scene to the point of awkwardness, challenging the characters to maintain their composure as the tangled web of deceit starts to fray at the seams. Described by its creator as “a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains,” the movie's title conveys the humiliation endured by the poor who are forced to live off the wealthy, for whom the word parasite is equally applicable. It is also questions the economic and political philosophies upon which their lives are built. Bong achieves this with great incision and intelligence, and without judging his characters. There is no pity or resentment in Parasite, which is beautifully shot and paced to perfection, until the end when what was a subtle, nuanced work of art lurches into a melodramatic zombie flick. Bong refuses to play by the rules and the clashing of genres is a formal echo of the interaction between these two families from opposite ends of the social spectrum. It looks as if the wealthy Parks could be a meal ticket for the whole crooked family, all pretending to be complete strangers to each other. But Da-song has noticed something the adults seem willing to ignore - why do these people all smell the same?
Although Parasite revolves around a wealthy family in a modern-day upstairs-downstairs situation, this is by no means simply a Korean version of Downton Abbey, playing on established rules of a class system. Rather, it is a reflection on how people act and react, are seen and not seen, depending on their financial status. It asks us what we would do if desperate. You might leach off someone else's internet connection, but would you fumigate your kitchen by opening the basement window when a lorry passed by spraying insect-killer? The film could perhaps deliver its payoff with more despatch, but nonetheless it is a highly enjoyable movie about a mix of servitude and trickery - an ongoing theme in contemporary Korean cinema. This sumptuously designed film shares many of its concerns with Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden (an adaptation of Sarah Walters' novel Fingersmith), and Im Sang-son's The Housemaid, a remake of Kim Ki-Young’s classic Korean thriller from 1960. Also notable is the film’s focus on poverty, desperation, and the phenomenon of those in debt having to disappear in order to evade creditors, a theme also explored in Lee Chang-dong's Burning.
Domestic servants possess an intimate knowledge of their employers, and yet this intimacy may be easily poisoned with resentment. There is a licensed transgression in servitude, and this transgression is nightmarishly amplified when it is a question of a entire family seeking to get up close and personal. The poorer family see themselves in a distorting mirror that cruelly reveals to them how wretched they are by contrast and reveals the riches that could (and perhaps should) be theirs. It is a scabrous and almost supernatural story - an invasion of the lifestyle snatchers - that resonates well beyond its generic limits. It asks significant questions about social status, aspiration, materialism, the patriarchal family unit, even the very idea of employing servants in the first place. It clearly delineates the suppressed horror of the upper class for its servants and its morbid distaste for those who have to use public transport. The satirical reflex extends to a vision of South and North Korea living together in paranoid, resentful intimacy, and its climax is precipitated by an almost Biblical climate-emergency catastrophe. As Mark Kermode suggested in his review for The Guardian, Parasite's toxic tendrils have a disturbing way of working themselves under your skin, just like Ki-Taek's stale, kimchee-scented sweat.
Parasite has provided a sort of coronation for Bong, who has been a favourite on the art-house/cinephile circuit for many years. There is little consensus, however, on whether it should be considered a thriller, a dark comedy, a family melodrama, or a piece of social commentary. Even the meaning of the title is up for debate, recalling Bong’s earlier breakthrough, The Host, which seemed equally perplexing when it was released in 2007. The truth, of course, is that it contains elements from all of the above. Parasite purrs through a series of exquisitely calibrated surprises, rewarding audiences with gleeful, white-knuckle tension, gallons of class resentment, and gales of laughter with the luxurious smoothness of Ki-taek's Mercedes-Benz. It is genuinely unclassifiable, tapping into a rich cinematic tradition of unreliable servants with an intimate knowledge of their employers, an intimacy that easily, and inevitably, congeals into hostility. Just as the action segues from slapstick to horror and back within the space of a single scene, so Bong plays things straight even as madness beckons, ensuring that the underlying elements of pathos are amplified rather than undercut by pastiche. The Park family hire musicians to to perform Handel's aria Spietati, io vi giurai from Rodelinde. It is expansive, airy, and caressingly sumptuous, not far removed from the Care selve arioso from Atalanta that the smug wealthy couple enjoy listening to in Michael Haneke’s home-invasion horror flick Funny Games before their own dark appointment with destiny. Jung Jae-il’s magnificently modulated score matches the film’s tonal shifts perfectly, moving from the sombre piano patterns of the curtain-raiser, through symphonic cues, to the cracked craziness of choric vocals clashing with a musical saw.
Joseph Losey’s The Servant invoked a comparable transgression, nightmarishly amplified here by the sheer number of people getting up close and personal, but Parasite also slots squarely into a Korean tradition of films such as Kim Ki-young’s thriller The Housemaid from 1960 (remade in 2010 by Im Sang-soo) and Park Chan-wook’s con-trick drama The Handmaiden, as well as the claustrophobic horror of his Oldboy. As part of the New Korean Cinema that electrified the festival circuit in the early 2000s, Bong joined directors like Kim Ki-duk (The Isle) and Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) in reinvigorating genre pictures with stylistic bravado and a dizzying ability to play around with tone. More than any of his Korean contemporaries, however, Bong has consistently defied categorization, with seven films that snake across the borders normally separating creature features from family tragedies, grim procedurals and farcical slapstick comedies. Parasite may have a distinctly Korean flavour, but its themes and characters remain universal and timeless. Not only did classic Japanese film-makers such as Ozu and Mizoguchi know such people, but so do we.
All of Bong's films are currently available to stream, so now is an opportune moment to revisit of one of world cinema’s most exciting and unpredictable filmmakers. A deep distrust of wealth and authority has been a recurrent feature of his work since his 2003 breakout feature Memories of Murder, and continues through such diverse offerings as The Host, Mother, Okja, and Snowpiercer, to which Parasite makes several knowing nods. After directing two straight English-language films that failed earn him a toehold in Hollywood, Bong returned to Korea for Parasite, which has now catapulted investigates the inherent problems of a gig economy in which the 'haves' subtly maintain their grip on power by playing off the 'have-nots' against each other. In the case of Parasite, the home invaders gaze on their super-rich employers and see themselves in a distorting mirror that pitilessly reveals how wretched they really are. In many ways, it resembles a supernatural sci-fi story - the invasion of the lifestyle snatchers. This is a horribly fascinating film, brilliantly written, superbly furnished and designed, with a glorious ensemble cast put to work in an elegantly plotted nightmare. Although Bong explicitly addressed similar themes in Snowpiercer and Okja, here he is content to keep them simmering just below the surface tension. Where the film goes - and where Bong’s career goes after this - remains as fascinating and unpredictable as the rest of his work.