Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho may be considered a genre filmmaker, but that does a complete disservice to how brilliant he is as a writer-director. Clashing tones is far too often seen as a bad thing. However, what Bong does with his films is use tonal shifts to give them extra layers. The Host may be considered a monster movie, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi action film and Okja is an adventure film, but restricting Bong’s films to a genre doesn’t detail how depth-filled they are in terms of the integration of social commentary, the pure craft constantly on display and the nuance and emotional richness he brings to his characters.
Parasite—Bong’s first wholly Korean film since 2009’s Mother—is no different. In fact, it puts on show everything which makes Bong one of the best filmmakers working today—and how deserving it was to receive the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Bong wrote a letter to critics after the film’s debut, asking them to refrain from revealing key plot details which are not shown in the trailer. Considering this is a film best experienced going in blind, with myself going in having not seen a trailer and barely knowing what it was about, I think it makes perfect sense as to why Bong would demand it.
Parasite follows an impoverished Korean family living in a subbasement, comprised of the good-natured patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and his wife Chung Sook (Jang Hye-jin), along with their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). They’re a family who is forced to scrape by, folding pizza boxes for a local restaurant, trying to leech free Wi-Fi from their upstairs neighbour, and having to deal with drunken people constantly urinating outside of their window. With the help of his sister’s Photoshop skillset, Ki-woo can scam his way into a job as a tutor for Da-hye (Jung Ziso)—the daughter of the wealthy Park family who occupy a spacious, luxurious home which is more than meets the eye. Sensing an opportunity, Ki-woo then helps enlist his sister as an art teacher for the Park’s energetic young son—who is arguably less talented than his mother presumes. The family come to realise they’re in deeper than they ever planned.
Parasite deals with the themes of class and wealth disparity, but handles it in a far different way than his first English-language film Snowpiercer. While that film shows its protagonist standing up to the privileged wealthy on the titular train, Parasite finds our family having to subtly integrate into wealth incognito. The Ki family leading this film are genuinely good, resourceful people who have been let down by a system that has confined them to poverty. Ki-woo’s fluke opportunity gives them a chance to experience a livelihood which has evaded them.
What makes this film so fantastic is that Bong employs genre conventions which not once feel cliché, and constantly elevate both tension and emotion. It’s dark comedy, a family drama and a thriller all in one—and they’re often all happening at the same time. The genius of Bong is that all the genre elements feel seamless, and the comedic and tenser thriller beats never sacrifice character to deliver genre thrills. Our central family is placed in heightened scenarios but there’s always an emotional grounding to the Ki family. It’s why Bong can integrate compelling character drama into the narrative and it never feels forced or out of place. The comedy, drama and tension all acts symbiotically and it never feels like it skips from one genre to another for the sake of it.
As a dark comedy, the film is brilliant because of how Bong stretches out scenes to their comedic peak and can still deliver a myriad of small, hilarious visual gags throughout. The comedy has an extremely caustic edge and it all works incredibly well. You’ll never see hot sauce and coffee tables the same way again. The comedy is so brilliant on its own, but it’s even more rewarding because it often creates tension or is created by tension, and most importantly—it enhances character. Even the opening of a fridge with a dozen Voss water bottles is a great comedic moment which shows the empty wealth of the Park family.
What Bong and co-writer Han Jin-won do so well from a script level is create compelling dynamics between Ki-taek’s family and the Park family. It would’ve been easy to have the wealthy Park family be depicted as rude, overbearing and pretentious, when in fact they’re not at all. It would’ve increased the sympathy we have for Ki-taek’s family and be an easy way to get them on-side with the audience, yet Bong wants us to constantly question the morality of the Ki family’s actions. He wants us to ask ourselves whether their desperation is warranted. Along with that, not a single character feels overbearing or cartoonish. Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong)—Mr. Park’s friendly yet naïve wife—could’ve so easily fallen into this trap of being a stereotypical idiotic wife, but Bong is smart enough not to have his characters divulge into simple, overused tropes.
The use of simple locations is also superb. The Park’s luxurious home is where a large amount of the film takes place, and you can feel a sense of coldness from the setting despite its lavishness. There’s a brilliant bit of symbolism regarding one of the home’s more hidden areas connecting to the disparity between the two families. It’s ironic a family can have so much wealth, yet because of how grand their home is, the Ki family can hide in plain sight within its walls—which they do both literally and figuratively.
Bong’s frequent acting collaborator Song Kang-ho makes his fourth appearance in one of his films—having appeared in Memories of Murder, The Host and Snowpiercer. Song is the beating heart of the film and delivers a lovable, humorous yet heartbreaking performance. It’s unsurprisingly brilliant work from the always great actor and it’s especially commendable considering Bong’s tonal shifts require Song and other members of the ensemble to shift into different acting beats on a dime. Song can communicate the struggle of his family’s living conditions with a simple look in one shot, yet he’s able to deliver some of the best comedic moments throughout. It’d be remiss of me to highlight another performance over the other because everyone’s in absolute top form. Although I will say that Lee Jung-eun as Moon-gwang—the Park family’s housekeeper—is especially hilarious when on screen.
Parasite is a film which evolves with every passing minute it’s on screen. It executes a tonal juggling act only a director of Bong Joon-ho’s talent can master. It’s been called a family tragicomedy, but calling it that doesn’t echo how tense and utterly thrilling it is. While the scenarios Bong places the Ki family in may exude craziness, them as a family and their surroundings always feel 100 per cent real. Just like much of Bong’s other work, there’s always a sense of desperation at the forefront. One minute you may be close to your dreams, and then the next minute you’ll be crashing back down to reality—realising the injustice that will always be seemingly present. Bong isn’t afraid to bring real-world bleakness into heightened, genre-bending cinema; that’s what elevates his work. It’ll take a truly special film to top Parasite in 2019, because it’s the year’s first masterpiece.
Parasite is out in selected cinemas on June 27