Being poor is never socially acceptable, unless you have a plan. Unemployment or underemployment are temporary. An opportunity at higher education is just around the corner. Maybe a wealthy suitor will arrive to sweep you off your feet. No matter how absurd the plan is, what modern society has convinced us about capitalism is that just a little bit of luck will get you right back on track. Scheming, hustling, grinding—there’s no shame in it! Wealth and prosperity are waiting around the corner.
The reality we all live, of course, is drastically, monstrously different from this. The majority of wealth in the United States, in Parasite filmmaker Bong Joon Ho’s native South Korea, in the entire goddamn world, is concentrated in the hands of very, very few. And it is those very few who spin the line that any of us could make it if we worked hard enough and tried hard enough, but until then, know your place. That is an exceptionally strict binary that has been excellently attacked by recent films like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird, and Parasite is folded from the same pizza box.
Compared with his previous filmography, Bong’s latest is funnier than Okja, less grotesque than Snowpiercer, but as broad as The Host; the grand aim of that film was to make a barbed statement about our environment and its destruction, and Bong is attempting something similarly lofty with Parasite while keeping the narrative tightly contained. There’s no apocalyptic train here. No Chris Evans rhapsodizing about the taste of baby flesh. No Tilda Swinton in outlandish getups. No Jake Gyllenhaal engineering the rape of a beloved animal. Those elements weren’t gimmicks in their respective films, but Parasite doesn’t allow for such indulgences.
The film is consistently funny, but its jokes are like acid burning through your flesh; they’ll leave scars. Every actor is called upon to deliver performances on top of performances, and they all knock it out, finding the exact right balance of authenticity and artifice. And while the plot has certain moments of profound shock, the overall vibe is more of a steady, thorough burn, the kind of incineration that starts at the end of a cigarette and then consumes its length and then keeps on spreading, producing ash and smoke and poison. You can put out a fire, but you can’t reverse it. Whatever it destroys stays destroyed.
Parasite introduces us first to the Kim family, living in a musky, stinkbug-filled semi-basement at the end of an alley where drunk men come to urinate outside of their living room window. They can barely afford their phones; they don’t have Internet; they string together a series of odd jobs to try—and often fail—to make ends meet. Patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is an out-of-work driver; matriarch Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) is an out-of-work former national medalist in track and field; son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is an out-of-work young man who has failed his university exam four times; daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam, a revelation in a universally perfect cast) is an out-of-work young woman who failed the art school exam. There’s no money around for tutors or for extra classes, or to pay off the right person to get the right opportunity. There are barely any jobs around for them to apply for; everything requires a recommendation, and who is going to help?
When an opportunity does arise, it’s because of a childhood friend of Ki-woo who now needs a favor: The young man is studying abroad for a semester, and he needs someone to take over his job tutoring a high school student in English. He doesn’t trust any of his university friends to do it—he worries they’ll corrupt the young woman. But Ki-woo? He’s just a regular, unsophisticated, salt-of-the-earth guy, someone too simple to make any sort of negative impact. He’s the perfect choice!
So that introduction connects Ki-woo with the Park family, who live in a fenced-off glass and concrete mansion on the top of a hill. (The production design from Lee Ha-jun, with the Kim family at the very bottom of numerous staircases, squatting in a basement, and the Parks at the top of those very staircases, with an expansive private yard and a beautiful view of the stars, is on-the-nose but quite effective.) The Parks are different from the Kims in practically every aesthetic way—elegantly coiffed and in designer clothes; always lightly snacking on fresh fruit prepared by their housekeeper; obsessed with appearances and other people’s opinions. “I don’t usually trust people, unless someone I know recommends them,” matriarch Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) says; “I can’t stand people who cross the line,” patriarch Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) remarks more than once. They are the faultless portrait of aspirational wealth and class and pedigree, and the imbalance and contrasts between the two families—and how they weave their way into each other’s lives—consumes Parasite.
I saw the film earlier this week at a screening hosted by the chair of a university film department, and in the discussion after the movie, she called the Parks “oblivious”; I consider that such a surprisingly generous statement that I almost consider it a disingenuous reading of the characters. Because what Bong does very intentionally with Parasite is demonstrate, over and over again, that each family has been shaped by oppressive capitalist forces that rob them of their humanity, that push them into constant competition, that instill in them a visceral dislike of people different from them—and a need to dominate. The Kims are schemers and charlatans, people who exaggerate often and lie easily and see no problem with living life as Robin Hood intended. But to construe the Parks as innocent is to miss how Bong positions that family as generous only in that they offer the skill and time of their employees, not themselves. The family driver is told to give someone a lift home, although it’s after their shift. The family housekeeper is constantly on hand to cook special meals, to prepare snacks whenever told to, to be the mother to the Park children that Yeon-kyo herself does not have the wherewithal to be.
Is it really generosity if all you are offering to other people is the service of employees whose jobs, whose entire livelihoods, are contingent on appeasing your whims? That doesn’t seem very humanistic, and yet I fear that the film’s final act shifts the movie into a direction that could easily be read as sympathetic more toward one family than the other. To do so would be to miss the points Bong is making about the protection of the wealth class, the systematic abuse of workers, and the idea that to take someone’s money is to owe them your selfhood—all of which are supported by fantastic cinematography from Hong Kyung-pyo and razor-sharp editing from Yang Jinmo. “What’s your plan?” the Kim family asks each other, and how Parasite reveals the inherent flaw of that question and the lies that surround it is unshakeable.
Parasite is in limited release around the U.S. and expands on Friday, October 25.
Image sources (in order of posting): Neon, Neon, Neon