By Benjamin Akpan
An architecturally mouth-watering house is situated upon a hill. Within it is a family, beautiful and graceful, with a life meticulously curated to aid total and thorough comfortability. A maid waits hand and foot, ever ready to meet the needs of the family. The one thing this family is not allowed to have, quite frankly, are peaches.
There is also a second house, within which another family resides. But this house is very different: an uncouth bunch with no regard for punctilio struggle to survive in a space where roaches roam free, and access to the internet is dependent on the poorly protected Wi-Fi of their neighbours.
There is a very clear demarcation between these two houses and these two families, one that should not be overstepped. But this is not some fairytale; it is a Bong Joon-ho film, and this line must be crossed.
© Youtube | NEON
South-Korean director Bong Joon-ho has never been one to succumb to convention. Amongst his strengths is the way in which his movies dance along and between genre boundaries while maintaining balance with perfect dexterity. In his Palme d’Or-winning effort Parasite, which might be his most daring project yet, Bong takes on the societally-engrained question of class disparity and social status – a subject that he has tackled before. In his 2012 science-fiction epic Snowpiercer, the poor are represented by the tail of a train, and the rich are the front, in a dystopian future where global warming has wiped out most mankind, with the remainder now living on an ever-running train. But, unlike Snowpiercer, this movie is not about the journey to bridge the gap – Parasitenever takes a firm stand for or against any social class, nor does it give room for the slightest judgement. Rather, it presents before us these duelling ideologies – reflecting on the profound chasms between the affluent and the impoverished – and the effects that emerge from their collision with just enough humour, drama, tragedy, action, and determination, taking us on a rollercoaster ride of conflicting emotions that never let us breathe until the credits begin to roll.
From the very moment Parasitebegins, Bong lets us know that there will be no beating around the bush. In fact, the title itself is the first indication that he knows exactly where the story is going. By definition, a parasite is an organism that attaches itself to a host, taking advantage of it, and enriching itself at the expense of the other party.
And, believe it or not, that one sentence is all the information, context, and even spoilers you need. Living in the depths of poverty, with barely a penny to their name are the parasites, led by Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), a smart college-age guy with big dreams. Using nothing but cunning, wit, and a little bit of Photoshop, he deceives his way into becoming an English tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Park family. He forges a college degree, dons a classy suit, and wheedles his way out of unemployment. Of course, Ki-woo does not have a college degree, but he aspires for one, even hoping to use the money made from his fake degree to attain a real one. It’s a brilliant plan, and his hosts are just gullible enough for it to work.
But his elaborate strategy is not nearly complete. After all, it is a parasite’s duty to multiply. And so, Ki-woo does: in no time his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) unscrupulously becomes an art therapist for the Park’s son, his father Ki-taek (Kang-Ho Song) replaces their driver, and his mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) becomes the maid. To divulge the plot any further, I would be doing you a disservice.
But make no mistake: no matter how much you presume and postulate, nothing can prepare you for all the chaos that ensues. The film steadily teases expectations, yet never leaving your anticipation hanging. There’s no way to accurately guess where Bong will take the story next, and this added veneer of mystery keeps you emotionally agitated. Then, in a heroic act of filmmaking expertise, Bong quenches all suspense with as much tragedy as hilarity, lulling you back to comfort – all the while setting you up for the next phase of rollercoaster madness.
It is when things finally come to a head (and they do, in the most unimaginably fascinating way), that the film’s title and themes take on a dual meaning. Constantly oscillating between good and just (because sometimes the good thing isn’t always the just thing), Bong causes your sympathy to bounce back and forth with frenetic consequences. The unending deceit, callousness, and bitter competition is nothing but a justification for the capitalist milieu that conceived the families (and their circumstances) presented before us. The poor parasitically deceive the rich in order to climb up the crooked ladder to social dominion, and the rich parasitically suck the masses dry in a bid to enrich themselves and maintain their position up the ladder of fortune.
Bong is able to hybridize the genres and themes smoothly without the jarring disconnect that plagues other movies’ attempts at tonal miscellany. And as if it isn’t enough that Parasiteis essentially perfect on paper, Bong further wields cinematic tricks and techniques, synchronizing every possible element in the book to keep us roped in.
The cinematography exhibits an arresting visual beauty that is grounded in realism and familiarity. Capturing vibrant colours and matched with the extravagant architectural production design, cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo creates a lived-in appearance that is a feast for the eyes. Majestic music pieces also set the mood for a grand and erratic plot, very quickly adapting and evolving according to the tone of the film at each given moment.
Every single interaction between the complex characters Bong has created is portrayed with brilliant chemistry by performers that are just as dynamic, bringing depth and nuance to such rich roles. In what is his fourth collaboration with Bong, Kang-ho Song delivers an eccentric performance that proves he is at the top of his game. But as the conniving daughter, So-dam Park is the standout through and through. She never misses a beat, expertly delivering a sumptuous combination of cold-heartedness, innocence, bravery, and just a little bit of sass to elevate her above the already lofty cast.
Bong Joon-ho is in a league of his own. His command behind the camera is adroit, and his unique storytelling is unmatched among his peers. In this grotesque critique of social inequality and the psychology of wealth, Bong flaunts his knack of subverting expectations and walking the tonal tightrope with equanimity. Parasiteis a suspenseful, genre-defying circus filled with more twists than the earphones in your back pocket. It is a vector that creeps under your skin and eats you from the inside out. There’s no questioning its excellence. There’s not even a need to try.
*Editor’s Note: Parasitescreened at the Toronto Interntaional Film Festival ‘19and is scheduled for release on October 11, 2019.