Every now and then, on the rarest of occasions, a film critic will encounter a movie that’s almost impenetrable through traditional approaches. The orthodox ways with which we discuss cinema – its merits, its foibles, its histories and other useful contextual frameworks – suddenly just don’t seem to be the right shaped net to catch these precious and elusive cinematic butterflies.
On the back of its history-making Palme d’Or win at Cannes (the first for a Korean film) and making its Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is precisely one of these strange, oddly beautiful creatures. Following the story of a struggling but tightly knit lower-class family who get by on short-term and often dodgy employment and who live in an underground apartment at the end of a pee-soaked urban alleyway, on paper at least the film is neatly summarized as a home invasion black comedy. One by one, they infiltrate the opulent home of a wealthy family to both garner a steady income and to benefit from the distinctly improved quality of life of their new employer.
The catch is, however, that the wealthy family are unaware that their parade of new staff are related. The story begins when Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) lands a job tutoring the teenage daughter of the wealthy Park family. Impressing his employer with his skills, he smoothly recommends an art therapist to help the Park’s troubled younger son, leaving out the fact that she is in reality Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam).
Knowing a good thing when they are onto it, Ki-jung and Ki-woo plot to oust the family’s long-embedded housekeeper and driver respectively, freeing the roles for their mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) and father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). These replacements staff are all very much gratefully welcomed by the bourgeois family who struggle to subsist without a small army of domestic staff.
Having seemingly accomplished the almost perfectly legit con-job, things begin to unravel when the class distinctions that define the two families bleed into the experiences of other characters who are just as desperate as Ki-woo and his family (if not more so). Employing the traditional gothic motif of the above/below spatial dynamic of the house/basement binary, Parasite utilizes a range of cross-culture references well beyond that of the home invasion film to tell Bong’s unique exploration of class difference.
And yet, like his previous films, this overview fails to capture what makes his movies so special, Parasite in particular. As recent films such as Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017) demonstrate only too clearly, Bong’s work is marked by a distinct social consciousness, focused particularly on imbalanced power structures and questions of dignity and morality in a world driven by corruption and the unchecked privilege of the elite.
Like these earlier films, Parasite continues its shared thematic fascination with this material through Bong’s signature, powerful ability to combine empathy and compassion with more familiar, genre-adjacent tropes, codes and conventions.
Yet more than any film he’s made before – and perhaps the secret to why Parasite made such an impact at Cannes – is how organically he blends these broader thematic concerns with the subjective and somatic subjectivity of his protagonists. Deliberately and undeniably flawed, there is a simultaneous charm to the central family that is notably absent from the sterile – and scentless – Park family, the supposed aspirational figures in the film whom the poorer family dream of becoming.
The success of Parasite is not merely marked by great filmmaking and an intriguing storyline, but deep within its foundations lies an overwhelming understanding on Bong’s part of how bigotry operates at an almost molecular level. It lies within us, it’s in the walls, under the floorboards. It’s everywhere, rendering Parasite as a truly original black comedy about the tragic, casual normalization of the uneven terms upon which everyday class warfare is waged.