Joon-ho Bong’s darkly funny and impactful film about class and place rings universal.
Kim Ki-taek folds the pizza boxes wrong. As his family huddles in their dank basement apartment, where they borrow internet on their phones from an unsuspecting neighbor, they feverishly fold hundreds of boxes for pennies. Patriarch Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) studies a video online and attempts to replicate the movements to efficiently fold the requisite number, but something is missing.
His devoted wife Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), and their two children, the sarcastic twenty-something Ki-jung (So-dam Park) and college-aged Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) do odd jobs to barely get by. But over a simple meal and few beers, they humbly celebrate the little things, like getting free Internet from a neighbor. Life for the close-nit Kim family is highlighted by low expectations. But that’s all about to change.
“Parasite” follows Ki-woo as he fakes college credentials and takes a job with the wealthy Park family. It isn’t that Ki-woo is a complete fraud, he’s smart and knows the lessons, but for reasons not made exactly clear, he’s not actually in college. Perhaps, it has to do with his economic position, but maybe his devotion to his family is holding him back.
Once Ki-woo gains the trust of his employer, the young, pretty and naive mother Yeon-kyo, and fed the infatuations of his comely student, Da-hye, he makes his move. After mooning over an example of a child’s artwork, Ki-woo suggests that an art teacher be employed for the family’s young son, Da-song. From there, the Kim family is able to worm their way in, not as a family unit, but as four people who casually know each other, but aren’t related. The question is, how long can the deception be maintained?
Directed and co-written by Joon-ho Bong, whose previous films have always dealt with class disparities (see “Snowpiercer,” where these themes are handled overtly), “Parasite” may be his most subtle and accomplished work to date. For those of you who struggled to stay with the whimsical “Okja,” or just saw “The Host” as a monster movie, this film forces viewers to focus on the characters, their relative positions, and their motivations. And while there are thrilling flourishes, “Parasite’s” dramatic weight isn’t undercut by any camera tricks or special effects.
The key player here is Kang-ho Song, who has been a constant in Bong’s productions over the years. As Ki-taek, Song is the heart of the narrative. In one critical scene, he explains the harsh reality of planning, and he prophetically tells his son what the best plan is. Song delivers one of the year’s best performances, which should resonate with any parent.
It’s hard to write about this film without spoiling it. But it’s enough to say that it’s worthy of being considered one of the year’s best. Sometimes a film in a foreign language, this one is in Korean, suffers because, if you don’t know the language, it can be hard to stay with the visuals and the narrative. However, if you’ve not recently exercised your subtitle muscles, don’t despair, because “Parasite” is fairly easy to follow, even without knowing the language. It’s possible to get the message even if miss a line here and there. Bong knows the visual language of the cinema like few filmmakers, and his cast, led by Song, convey so much, in their faces and body language, the key themes are clear.
When I was growing up there were always grifters, who talked up get rich quick schemes. Ever been to a gathering at a neighbor’s home where they tried to “change your buying habits?” Or would you happen to remember someone selling emu oil, or it being suggested that in your spare time you get paid to stuff envelops at home? Today, folks are fooled by scams that promise to pay you by clicking on ads or have been deceived into taking a position as a mystery shopper.
In “Parasite,” the Kim family use their significant skills (in graphic design, writing, and acting) to take in the confidence of a rich, pompous family. I say “pompous,” because the Parks are oblivious to the lives of those outside their class. This is why the masquerade is so easy to maintain. But the intricacy of the Kim’s plan points up that they shouldn’t need to defraud others to make ends meet. After all, they are a talented family who takes great joy in the small things, therefore, success for them wouldn’t require great wealth.
But foreshadowing comes early in “Parasite” when there’s something missing in Ki-taek’s folds, leaving so many pizza boxes incomplete and unusable. Viewers will chuckle at this small and amusing scene, as the hapless Ki-taek peers without much hint of emotion at his early-twenty-something employer, who decides to dock them for the error. There are no short cuts in life, and watching a video on Youtube won’t likely make you an automobile mechanic, a five-star chef, or realistically bring you great wealth.
At one point in the film, Ki-taek, who has taken the position of driver for the Parks, dresses as a Native American as part of a surprise at a birthday party. When the plan is explained to him, he seems a bit uncomfortable with performing this duty. But then he’s told that he will get extra pay, he’s to think of it as part of his job on top of the one he’s already performing. He’s not and will never be a part of the family.
“Parasite” is a timely commentary about our era of the classist “gig” economy, in which the transactional overcomes decency and humanity. And in this time of minute long attention spans, when our identities are defined by Twitter handles and by masked, digital personas, the Kim family’s desperate deception in order to insinuate their family into the lives of the wealthy shouldn’t be surprising. Do you, for example, know the person who delivers that Big Mac and fries via Grub Hub? Do you even care?