It’s such a pleasure to find a film truly unpredictable, while still feeling entirely confident in the director’s mastery of story and tone. 2019’s Palme d’Or winning Parasite is the first movie I’ve seen in a while that achieves that thrilling balance. Not that this is Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s first shot at artfully literalising class tension – 2013’s Snowpiercer did that with plenty of Orwellian, sci-fi spectacle – but here, he works on a more intimate, dollhouse scale. Parasite is a playful chamber piece when compared to Bong’s sweeping, silly genre films, but still exhibiting the same adrenal intuition for staging great action scenes.
Like Harold Pinter’s The Servant (1963), Parasite is a class comedy about the sadistic relationship between the upper class and its invisible helpers, and the mortal consequences of that imbalance. In this case, the have-nots are the Kim family, bolstered by Bong favourite Song Kang-ho as lovable, complacent dad Ki-taek. Trapped, tellingly, in a small basement apartment, they’re given an unlikely boost upwards when their genteel son Ki-woo is hired to tutor the daughter (Jung Ziso) of the wealthy Park family.
The Park family home alternately resembles a gallery and a tomb – it’s no wonder daffy matriarch Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) is so high-strung, determined to coddle her kids into being the best versions of themselves. Ki-woo quickly exploits her helicopter parenting and pilots it towards his own interests, convincing her that her hyperactive son desperately needs an art tutor. He recommends his sister Ki-Jung (Park So-dam), without letting on that they’re related. From then on, all the siblings need to do is to orchestrate the hasty firing of the Park’s driver and housekeeper in order for those plum jobs to get scooped up by dad and mum Chung Sook (Jang Hye-jin).
The lifestyle the Kim family stumbles upon is invite only. Ki-woo only snags the job because a well-to-do former classmate stoops to recommend him for the position, and even then, he has to forge himself a degree to appear legit. Sweetly, he promises his dad that he’ll someday be able to graduate from university for real, saying he doesn’t see the fake certificate as a “forgery or a crime”, and only that he “printed out the document a bit early.”
Bong encourages us to laugh at both families: at the Parks for their privilege and obliviousness, but also at our working class protagonists for their shameless conniving, for their addiction to their phones, their slapstick physical comedy. But he also considers the root source of their callousness, and why it’s so easy for them to fuck over the previous servants. A drunken Chung Sook complains that if she was as rich as the well-intentioned Mrs Park, she’d be nice, too – that given the extra time and energy that comes with money, she’d have the emotional space to be a better person, and to not have to fight over every menial injustice in her life.
This is a dicey prospect – that empathy itself is a kind of luxury, one that the Kims can’t prioritise amidst their hustle for food and fortune, and those tricky moral implications are addressed visually, rather than through any preaching within Bong’s screenplay. Burning (2018) cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo’s framing of internet cafes and disaster relief centres is cramped, despite the extra allowance of a widened 2.35 aspect ratio – the characters fold their bodies to fit into each shot. Compared to the elegiac, open-plan architecture of the Parks’ trendy home, we’re shown that the Kims simply don’t have the physical space to take care of themselves, let alone to consider the poor souls they’re slyly replacing.
Yeon-kyo praises the “lucky” trail of recommendations that results in her house’s mysterious line-up of new staff, calling it a “belt of trust”, but the cruel fact is that none of the Kims could’ve talked their way into these new lives through their own merit. Bong is almost hilariously unsubtle in how he uses rain and floodwaters to visualise trickle-down economics – everything good comes from above, and if those in the gutter are clever enough, they can crawl upwards to read the diaries of the upper class, to drink from their seemingly endless supply of VOSS bottles. The Park family are in fact so clueless to the workings of their comfy world that they assume the lights in their house are lit by sensors, whereas its real mechanics hide something much darker.
That’s right – I haven’t even mentioned Parasite’s loony, pivotal shift in tone and plot.
As the film’s midpoint approaches, we get the unshakeable feeling that some disaster is headed squarely in our direction. There are hints to suggest that this facade the Kim family have created for themselves isn’t sustainable: the Parks’ son notices that all of the servants smell similar, due to the family all using the same shampoo, and Ki-taek’s resentment towards his bosses begins to ferment.
But it’s a visit from the ex-housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) that heralds a bizarre new plot thread which lets Tae-young Choi’s visceral sound design shine, making us flinch with strung-out silences and the thunk of heads slamming into concrete like an old basketball. It’s all headed towards a suitably bonkers climax at a child’s ‘trauma recovery’-themed birthday party, and we collectively cringe in expectation of the family inevitably being exposed as the boogeymen they’ve made themselves into. Only this late in the game are we reminded of Snowpiercer and The Host (2006)’s brilliant action choreography. In a number of Home Alone-esque scenes of the Kims struggling to retain their secret stronghold over their employers home, the tension is driven as much by comedy as by our incredulous shock at what unfolds before us.
In its warped yet empathetic characterisation of a subterranean community groping desperately upwards for the dignity of the bourgeoisie, Parasite is somewhat reminiscent of (and sometimes tenser than) Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). In his wild fusion of genres, Bong obviously doesn’t antagonise his family of social climbers as much as Peele’s more straightforward horror film does, but he milks every drop of pathos from his blunt, vertical imagery; the tragedy of slippery stairs and flooded basements. The Kims are given one lucky chance to rise above their means but plenty of opportunities to fall down – and only Bong’s tonal sorcery makes that threat so completely entertaining.
Parasite is in Australian cinemas from 27 June.
Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen.