Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Parasite is a Korean satirical drama film released in 2019 that was directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho. The film depicts a poor family living in a basement flat who gradually find work by exploiting an unwitting rich family. The film stars Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Park So-dam, Lee Jung-eun and Jang Hye-jin. The film gained international recognition by becoming the first Korean film to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and later the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Lauded by critics as one of the best films of 2019, the film went on to earn more than $258 million worldwide. With a TV spin-off series currently in development and a dish featured in the film becoming popularised, Parasite has become one of the most successful Korean films of all time.
What's It About?
The Kim family are living in squalor in a basement apartment, earning meagre wages folding pizza boxes and scrounging whatever they can to get by, even using the free wi-fi of local businesses. Elder son Ki-woo meets with his friend, university student Min-hyuk, who wishes Ki-woo to take over his tutoring job at the home of the wealthy Park family, teaching English to their daughter Da-hye. He also gives Ki-woo a scholar's rock traditionally used to symbolise wealth. Determined to make the most of this opportunity, Ki-woo decides to take up the offer and soon charms his way into the stylish Park residence.
Befriending Park matriarch Choi Yeon-gyo, Ki-woo learns that her son is artistically talented but troubled and in need of a new art tutor. Spotting an opportunity to get his sister another position at the Park household, the two of them conspire with their parents to get the entire Kim family jobs with the Park family without letting on that they are exploiting their wealthy employers. Everything goes smoothly when the Parks depart for a camping trip until one stormy night when the Park's former housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang unexpectedly returns to the property while the Kims are enjoying themselves, declaring that she has left something in the basement...
What's to Like?
I wasn't too sure what to expect from my first experience of Korean cinema, probably something extreme like Oldboy or horror themed like The Host. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find this a slow-burning thriller that serves as a parable about the dangers of greed, social inequality and class division. The narrative is brilliantly written and constructed, feeling well-paced and cohesive before delivering one of two shocks when things start getting sinister. The atmosphere is a mix of dead-pan comedy with the increasing levels of tension that build throughout, one of many nods the director makes to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. The language barrier may put some viewers off (I personally have no issue with subtitles but some of you do) but patient viewers will be well rewarded - and slightly blindsided by the genuinely alarming climax.
The cast do an excellent job of breathing life into the characters, making the Kim family feel less like the criminals they are and the Park family less deserving of our sympathy. I especially enjoyed Cho Yeo-jeong as the naive mother falling for every one of the Kim's lies and Choi Woo-shik as the well-meaning but lazy instigator of the film's events. What the film does best, however, is point out the existing discrepancies within Korean society between the wealthy and the poor (discrepancies that I imagine most viewers will understand in their own countries) and the lengths that good people will go to just to survive. The Kims are by no means 'bad' people while the affluent Parks are seen as lazy, incompetent, ignorant and pretentious. But neither family comes out of the film smelling of roses and the film certainly doesn't condone the actions of the Kims, something painfully apparent in the tragic final scenes.
- The Park's house, apparently designed by a famous architect, was actually a set built according to a number of sketches by Bong Joon-ho himself. When the film's production designer consulted a real architect, they dismissed the sketches saying that no idiot would build houses in such a ridiculous way.
- Scholar stones have a long history in East Asia where they are known as landscape rocks or suseok. Bong Joon-ho's father collected them when the director was younger and they were historically found on the writing tables of Confucian scholars, hence their English name.
- A black-and-white version of the film was later released for screenings at film festivals and art-house theatres in the US. Bong hoped that the lack of colour in the film would help further illustrate the differences between the houses of the rich and poor families.
- The film's title actually has a double meaning: the Kims are obviously parasites by attempting to live off the success of the richer Park family but the Parks are also parasites as they are devoid of certain skills such as driving or housework and so therefore need others to do this for them.
What's Not to Like?
The film's sudden tonal shift halfway through seemingly comes out of nowhere and takes things of a very different path than the one you might expect. Within a single scene, everything takes on a different emphasis and things you hadn't noticed before like flickering lights or the young boy's disturbing artwork suddenly take on much greater significance. These scenes felt more like the kind of gritty filmmaking I was expecting although, as I said earlier, my inexperience of Korean cinema probably held me back in that respect. From my perspective, I felt as though the carpet had been suddenly removed from beneath my feet and it took the family in a direction I genuinely didn't see coming. In short, it felt like it was too left-field to be plausible and the film ventured more into parable than social commentary.
But in truth, I didn't mind this jolt in the storytelling as it kept my interest and heightened the tension even further. The ending felt a little Shakespearean, laced with tragedy and irony in equal measure but also a touch unsatisfying. Regardless, the film deserves to be held up as a fine introduction to Korean cinema in general and the work of Bong Joon-ho in particular, a director fast developing a reputation as a filmmaker of real talent at home and abroad. And it isn't just a great Korean film but a great film, period. The language and setting are almost irrelevant as the film is told in such a way that we understand the culture and setting implicitly.
Should I Watch It?
Few expected Parasite to achieve the success it has but you can't deny that the film is worthy of breaking some of cinema's glass ceilings. It's well written, performed and shot by a filmmaker at the peak of his talents, creating a film that serves as a warning to both the have's and the have-not's. Don't be put off by the language or setting as the film manages to work on a universal level and hopefully puts many other Korean filmmakers into the spotlight in the years to come.
Great For: exposing Korean cinema to a wider audience, surpassing expectations, surprising viewers
Not So Great For: cynics of foreign language films (who are missing out, if I'm honest), the easily spooked, economic extremes
What Else Should I Watch?
Ever since Oldboy came to international prominence back in 2003, Korean entertainment has become increasingly popular - whether it's their films, TV shows like Squid Game or K-pop bands like BTS. Park Chan-wook's adaptation of the Japanese manga of the same name brought global attention to Korean cinema with its visceral tale of a man kept in solitary confinement for fifteen years suddenly released and seeking both answers and revenge for those who held him captive. Inspiring the Spike Lee remake Oldboy in 2013 (which didn't go down as well with critics), the film served as the middle part in Park's Vengeance trilogy, sandwiched between 2002's Sympathy For Mr Vengenace and 2005's Lady Vengeance.
Bong Joon-ho had achieved earlier success with monster film The Host and his English-language sci-fi flick Snowpiercer, coincidentally also based on a graphic novel. Still one of the most expensive Korean films ever made, Snowpiercer depicts a class struggle within the remains of society on board a train travelling across a snow-covered world. At the time of writing, he is working on a number of future projects including a rumoured animated film but whichever way his career goes, Bong Joon-ho can count me as one of his fans.
Kim Ki-taek (Mr Kim)
Kim Ki-woo (Kevin)
Park Dong-ik (Nathan)
Choi Yeon-gyo (Madame)
Kim Ki-jung (Jessica)
Bong Joo-ho & Han Jin-won
Release Date (UK)
16th January, 2020
Comedy, Drama, Thriller
Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best International Film
Academy Award Nominations
Best Production Design, Best Film Editing
© 2021 Benjamin Cox