Parasite (South Korea, 2019)

An unfortunate truth of the movie culture is that constant buzz can often backfire. It happens every year. There are always one or two films for which critics raise expectations so impossibly high, that when they come out, they are bound to disappoint. Hence, it is a true delight when a movie comes along that not only meets those impossibly high expectations but exceeds them. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite manages to do precisely that. Parasite has become an international sensation ever since its monumental achievement of winning the Palm D’or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and as of the time of writing, it has grossed over $120 million worldwide. Parasite is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year, if not the decade, and while its attempt at social criticism tilts a bit towards the heavy handed, I have no doubt that it will become a film school curriculum staple.

The plot centers around the Kims, a family of basement dwellers who at the start of the film are struggling to make ends meet. In the very first scene, we see them stealing WiFi from a nearby business in order to complete a gig for a pizza company they’ve managed to get. The family catches a lucky break when the son, Ki-woo Kim (Choi Woo-shik) is able to find a job as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family. Soon after, the Kim family moves in on the Parks and each of them secures a job within the family: the father (Song Kang-ho) as Mr. Park’s chauffeur, the mother (Jang Hye-jin) as a housekeeper, and the daughter (Park So-dam) as an art teacher – all secured through rather nefarious tactics.

For a while, the Kim family basks in the glory of their incredible luck. They dream that one day they might own a house just like that of the Parks. Ki-woo thinks he might marry the Parks’ daughter and live in that very house. It all seems possible. Bong gives his characters plenty of time to daydream for a better future, before he has everything go wrong, spiraling towards an inevitable heart-wrenching tragedy that demonstrates to the audience that his characters’ dreams are just that – dreams.

Here’s the thing: there’s not much that I can say about Parasite that has not already been said. Western critics have dissected the hell out of it, pointing out everything from Bong’s seamless blend of comedy and drama (which he does so well in all his films), to the poignant critique of class structures and late stage capitalism that lies in the foundations of Parasite. And I largely agree. This is an exceptional film on nearly every level. Song Kang-ho, a national treasure, gives one of the best performances of his career – and so do the rest of the actors who play his family members. The set designers and cinematographer have gone above and beyond to convey the sharp difference in class between the two families. One could watch the film on mute and still get the gist of what it is about.

Parasite is a nearly flawless film. Nearly so. But why only “nearly?” It’s a matter of opinion, of course, but at the risk of invoking people’s insatiable wrath, I’ll say that what makes this film shy away from perfection is its lack of nuance in the social commentary. There is no subtext in Parasite, only text. Bong has abandoned all forms of subtlety for an opportunity to clearly shout out the message of the movie, which is about class dynamics in the modern capitalistic world. In this respect, Parasite is clearly influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 film, High and Low, an influence that director Bong has openly acknowledged. High and Low shares quite a few elements with Parasite, most notably the use of vertical space to represent class, but unlike the latter, it tells a more ambiguous story with an open-ended conclusion. Kurosawa makes it clear that there are no easy answers, whereas Bong tries everything he can to offer an easy answer – or at least an obvious one. In this reviewer’s opinion, the former is more effective in inciting social discourse than the latter.

Nevertheless, 2019 is not 1963. Perhaps the needs of 2019 are not those of 1963, and perhaps (just perhaps) we can no longer afford open-endedness and two-tiered answers. Certainly, that’s what Bong thought, so his final message is a clear punch to the gut: A family like the Kims will never be like the Parks in our current state of socioeconomic stratification. Obvious or not, this is a message that will resonate with many.

The success of Parasite has not only made 2019 a good year for Bong Joon-ho, but for South Korean cinema in general. It put it on the world map like no other film has done before. It won the country’s first Palme D’or, and has a strong chance of winning the 2019 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, which would also be a first for South Korean cinema. I sincerely hope it does.