This is a rare one for me: I saw PARASITE having no clue what it was about at all. Completely fresh. I saw the trailer 1 (one) time and didn’t understand what was going on. But I liked the three movies I’ve seen by director Bong Joon-ho (SNOWPIERCER) enough to just take the hype at its word and go see it. And since two of those movies (THE HOST and OKJA) are strange creature movies I honestly didn’t even know if the title was a metaphor or if there was also going to be an actual parasitic monster at some point.
Anyway it’s not a huge surprise twist movie or anything, but I enjoyed the lack of expectations. So I guess only read this if you’ve seen it or don’t care about that. (contains spoilers, mostly vague.)
It’s the story of the Kim family – father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik, TRAIN TO BUSAN) and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam, THE SILENCED) – who seem to take economic struggle in stride. They live together in a cluttered basement infested by stink bugs, with a window facing an alley where they often see a drunk guy peeing. In the opening scene they discover that their neighbor added a password to her wi-fi, but they can connect to a nearby cafe if they crawl into the top corner of the apartment on the raised platform with the toilet. Which is important because they need WhatsApp to communicate with the young manager of Pizza Generation (Jung Yi-seo) who pays them to fold boxes.
Opportunity knocks in the form of Ki-woo’s friend Mink-hyuk (Park Seo-joon, THE DIVINE FURY) who wants him to take over his tutoring of rich girl Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so, THE TIGER: AN OLD HUNTER’S TALE) while he studies abroad. His sister Ki-jeong is good at Photoshop and forges documents so he can fake a college education, and after the job interview with Da-hye’s mom Park Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong, THE CONCUBINE) he recommends Ki-jeong – pretending she’s only an acquaintance with a sterling reputation in her field – to be her weirdo son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon)’s art teacher. She pawns that into a higher paying art therapist gig, and before long they scheme to have dad and mom replace the driver and the housekeeper (all pretending to not know each other).
There’s a whole lot of mischief involved. Brazen lies fly left and right. Innocent people are framed. An inappropriate relationship is formed. There is some shocking violence. Also some laughs and some sweet moments of quasi-friendship. It’s a masterfully told story that seems kind of crazy and random as it gets started and more and more intentional as the pieces fall into place. I love this type of writing where some little detail is mentioned, you wonder about it, you forget about it, and later when it becomes relevant there is no fucking way that would’ve been your guess.
(SPOILER EXAMPLE: We hear that Da-song had a traumatic incident when he was three – we had no clue it was seeing a ghost, and if we had, we wouldn’t have known that it was because the housekeeper’s husband has been secretly living under the house for years and once poked his head up at the wrong time!)
I won’t get into everything that happens, but it’s a movie about class – about people with money who think they’re nice to their servants and that makes them good people. I think one thing that makes it effective that that the Parks are, for the most part, nice people. They can be a pain in the ass, they tend to be self-absorbed, they can say mean things sometimes, but so can anybody. They’re hard to hate. They’re just oblivious. A more normal movie would be from their perspective and Mrs. Park throwing a birthday party would seem like a sweet moment instead of an opulent fuck you to another family in crisis.
And the Kims would be much better off with a little class solidarity. Not only do they steal jobs from people, but they then refuse an opportunity to help them out. In a weird way it reminded me of the end of Fargo Season 1 (spoiler for the end of Fargo Season 1) when Lester Nygaard could’ve gotten away with it but it insulted his ego that Lorne Malvo pretended not to know him, and he just couldn’t let it go, thus sealing his well-deserved doom. The Kims just had to help a brother out and everything would be fine. But they don’t do it. Even they look down on people in basements.
There’s an important theme of smell. Little Da-song notices that the Kims all have the same odor on them. At first they contemplate all using different laundry detergents in order to smell different, but So-dam says it comes from living in a basement. And her dad takes it very personally when he notices Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun, R-POINT) reacting to his smell. It’s just too much indignity for him, too much dehumanization. He doesn’t see a positive side to it like he did when the exterminators sprayed for stinkbugs and didn’t bother to tell them to close their windows.
Maybe this is too obvious to need stating, but both families are parasites. The Kims latch themselves onto the Parks to live off of their wealth, first through salary and eventually treating the house as their own while the owners are on a camping trip. But of course it goes the other way too, with the Parks latching onto the Kims to feed them, drive them, take care of their kids, clean their house, give up their time, their lives and (literally in this case) their identity for them.
PARASITE reminds me quite a bit of a great Japanese film I saw last year but didn’t review, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s SHOPLIFTERS. That’s another movie about a family who live and work together, who have unusual ways of dealing with poverty, who we follow and become attached to before the full extent of their moral violations are known to us so we can accept them as complicated human beings rather than have to classify them as good guys or bad guys to root for or against. We can recognize their flaws and poor choices but also their struggles, their yearnings, their complex circumstances. We can be mad at them without passing judgment on them.
For a South Korean movie of non-specific genre, PARASITE has been a giant hit in the U.S. I know a ton of people who have seen it in a theater and I haven’t heard of one of them who didn’t think it was great. It’s one of those rare movies that ignores all previously existing templates, but feels completely confident from frame one. You never quite know where it’s going, because as it reveals itself as one thing it’s always holding another thing behind its back. And it’s about something, sure, but that something is wrapped warmly in personality and humor and the small details of these characters and their world. Once again Joon-ho has created a movie with a tone that makes most of our country’s movies seem pretty flavorless by comparison. When all is said and done it’s a dark, fucked up and angry movie. But it’s so funny and likable as it strolls to that destination that it tricks you into feeling like it’s a fun time at the movies.
PARASITE is outta sight!
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.