Parasite (2019) by Bong Joon-ho
Review by Lucy Palmer
Boon Jong-ho’s latest film retains the raw power of his earlier works, but effortlessly weaves in narrative and emotional complexity to create a simultaneously beautiful and scathing tapestry.
Given that Parasite won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in an unanimous jury decision, you’d be justified in expecting great things from the Korean director’s latest film – and it deserves every accolade. Parasite is a film that plays with genre like no other and somehow remains decisively coherent from beginning to end. In many ways, though, it doesn’t quite match the expectations associated with the prestigious prize: despite its significant run-time, there are no ponderous scenes bereft of dialogue or action, no abandonment of plot in favour of character drama, and no chance to stop and reflect until it’s over. But while it may be much more accessible than films which have won in the past, but certainly no less complex.
The film opens as a warm yet intriguing comedy, as we are introduced to the Kim family combing their house for a nearby WiFi signal to piggy-back off, which they finally find in a tiny corner next to the toilet. Many viewers may immediately focus their attention on the literal expression of the film’s title (that is, without a doubt, one of the best titles of the year), but most will simply relate to the family’s quest, which is so victimless it barely registers as a crime. The light humour underpinning their search is something of a departure from Bong’s previous films (which are often steeped in oppressive suspense from the opening scenes), but it is a shift which illuminates the story. We are immediately made to feel comfortable in the squalid yet homely world and given time to get to know the family, understanding their relationships from the inside out. While ‘comfort’ is the antithesis of the film’s lasting impression, it is a basis which allows Bong to build an increasingly complicated web without losing an emotional core. We have laughed with, not at, the Kims, and thus see the world from their perspective.
Even from these early scenes, the technical aspects of the film are refreshingly impressive. While the surroundings are perhaps not conventionally beautiful, the warm glow and attention to detail with which they are shot implies the opposite. Each frame is overflowing with miscellaneous ‘stuff’ collected by the family, which, like the dots of pointillist painters, comes together to form one striking whole. Drying clothes hang from the walls, chargers dangle from plug sockets and a single cardboard tube stands on top of the toilet roll in the bathroom, left by someone who couldn’t be bothered to throw it away. Through this comprehensive layering of their possessions, we understand that the house is not only a place to sleep, but their home. Equally, the interaction between family members lights up their seemingly humble environment and transforms the symbols of poverty into nuisances and punch-lines. The performances of the central cast are fantastically engaging, as every actor balances their individual persona with the immaculate machine of ‘the family.’ It is immediately evident they share an authentic bond, and despite the bickering (or perhaps because of it), they are completely comfortable in each other’s company. It is a testament to the actors’ talent that they deliver such fantastic comic performances without losing hold of their characters as the film veers away from its initial comedy.
The first sign of change to their situation is when the son, Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-shik), is approached by a friend with a job opportunity as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family. He grabs hold of this opening, which he is not necessarily qualified for, and quite literally ascends into a jarringly different environment. As Ki-Woo visits the Park house, we see open sky, sun, and grass for the first time, and the contrast between the two worlds becomes achingly evident with every new revelation. At first, the transition doesn’t spell an end to laughter, and instead elevates it; the higher stakes mean the Kim family’s mischievous schemes result in increasingly satisfying ends. With the introduction of the wonderfully melodramatic Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), the mother of the Park family, the humour turns to her strange yet seemingly benign eccentricities. However, not content to simply point out the difference between the two classes, this divide simply serves as the outline for Bong’s completed masterpiece.
Somewhere between the hilarious gags and beautiful production design, the seeds for the thrilling yet devastating conclusion are planted. At some point, Parasite stops being a comedy, but by then it is too late to turn back – like a train hurtling downhill, too fast to be stopped. In lesser hands, such a complete play on genre could undermine the film’s impact, but Bong makes it appear natural. Every scene leads into the next while remaining completely gripping in the moment. Crucially, there is no single step towards tragedy, but a gradual slide, until the end appears inevitable and it is hard to understand how it wasn’t obvious from the beginning.