Director Bong Jong-ho’s “Parasite” is a finely crafted arthouse family farce that’s wickedly amusing and disturbing. Its title conjures an image that is so apt for the film that it sends a chill down your spine. It simply reveals a facet of the human race that is true and at the same time frightening.
What starts out as a comedy of manners and class-war, soon turns into a furious snarl of rage and an arresting social satire where the monsters are only humans. The story takes place in South Korea but could easily shoehorn into any location on the globe. The Kim family, consisting father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) and daughter Ki-jeong, live in a poky Seoul basement flat coping with life. They try to make their ends meet by working on low-paying temporary jobs.
At first glance, the film seems like a black comedy about a struggling family that depends on free Wi-Fi and dreams of their next scheme. When Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk has to give up his well-paid assignment of tutoring Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the daughter of the affluent Park family, the duo concocts a plan for Ki-woo to take over the tutoring job despite Ki-woo being woefully under-qualified.
Once Ki-woo is settled in the Park household, it is obvious that he realises his own family’s deprivation. For him, the Park’s house looks like a dream. So, he grabs the opportunity to set up his sister Ki-jeong as the art teacher for the young Park Da-song. His father, Ki-taek soon usurps the Park’s driver’s position and the trio together manages to oust the long-time housekeeper Moon-gwang to accommodate the Kim matriarch Chung-sook. Soon, we gradually discover a darker side of the Kim family’s materialistic dreams.
Director Bong’s command of the medium is thrilling. In the telling of how all the four Kims come to sit pretty in the Park residence without being recognised as a family of con-artist and imposters, he and his co-writer Han Jin-won show more wit and invention than many filmmakers manage for the duration of their run time. In “Parasite” this is just the appetiser ahead of the strangely entrancing feast.
The lightly comic tone continues after the Kims begin working for the Parks, despite ripples of unease that develop into riptides. The slapstick becomes more violent, the stakes more naked, the laughs more terrifying and cruel. By that point, you are as comfortably settled in as the Kims; the house is so very pleasant, after all. But the cost of that comfort and those pretty rooms, and the eager acquiescence to the unfairness and meanness they signify, comes at a terrible price.
The juxtaposition between the Kims and the Parks is visually striking. From the characters’ interactions with each other to their own homes, Bong offers a window to two social extremes in South Korea, as well as the clash of classes that define them. It tackles aspiration and affluence, desperation and poverty, in ways in which all viewers can understand and find recognisable truths in.
Although they are poor, the Kims are close-knit, supportive and comfortable in their bug-infested basement. In comparison, the dysfunctional Parks are emotionally closed off and seemingly indifferent to each other’s issues – in fact, the only time they are truly expressive is when they are with the Kims. Neither can be cast as heroes or villains, but the stark comparison between them evokes underlying classist tension and resentment that brews until Parasite’s unexpected climax.
Complementing the direction are the brilliant performances by the talented cast and Hong Kyung-pyo’s beautifully minimalist cinematography, which creates an almost organised setting and a perfect playground for chaos.