There’s a shot in Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite where patriarch Ki-teak (Kang-ho Song), posing as a chauffeur, is driving the wealthy Mr. Park around on the highway while musing about how important it is for a driver to be good at the small stuff: smooth cornering and shifting gears. I don’t think it’s intentional on the writer/director’s part, but he’s praising himself here. Bong’s direction in Parasite is so precise, so smooth, that he shifts gears – comedy to thriller to family drama to outright horror – with an effortlessness that the audience will never notice until after it’s happened. Interactions and setups in Parasite are hilarious until they flip, almost unnoticeably, to something more insidious. The result is a project that reveals itself expertly, never giving you more than exactly what you need to stay enraptured, and teasing out its many twists slowly and effectively. Parasite is, hands down, my favourite film experience of 2019.
Parasite’s tale of often-literal class warfare centres around the Kims, a family of impoverished swindlers. College-aged Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), his older sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park), mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), and father Ki-taek all have their own money-making scams, ranging from the most minor, like stealing Wi-Fi or folding pizza boxes for a local company, to the Machiavellian one that forms the plot of this film. Ki-woo accepts a position, under false pretenses, as an English tutor for Da-hye (Ji-so Jung) of the upper-crust Park family. Enchanted by the Parks’ beautiful, sprawling home, Ki-woo seizes the opportunity to insinuate the rest of his family into the service of the wealthy and oblivious Parks. One by one, he eliminates the Parks’ hired help in increasingly cunning ways, supplanting them with Ki-jung as the Parks son’s art tutor, Ki-taek as the family’s driver, and Chung-sook as the housekeeper, never letting on that the new staff is related. But at a certain point, the constant juggling of the Kims’ fake stories, fake smiles, fake identities, starts to become unmanageable. Nothing will resolve the way you expect, but a reckoning is coming.
The idea of a parasite, living off its host, is a strong and unsubtle metaphor in this film. Not just the Kims, invading the Parks home to feed off of their wealth and privilege, but the Parks themselves. Parasite explores the idea that the wealthy leave themselves vulnerable to incursions, big and small, by farming out their lives to the hired help on which they rely. And it’s about more than just survival. “Money is an iron,” says Chung-sook, referring to the way that her wealthy employers can smooth any wrinkle – the children’s behavioural issues, marital strife, or even darker problems – with enough cash. Who are the real parasites here?
I’m reminded of fellow Palme d’Or winner, last year’s Shoplifters, and Tsai-Ming Liang’s 2013 film, Stray Dogs, here. Like Parasite, both feature families on the very fringes of society, scraping by on their ingenuity and their desperation. Their economic status keeps them from fully participating in society, forcing them to merely feed off the waste that trickles down from those who have more than they could ever need. In both Shoplifters and Stray Dogs this is passive and deeply sad. In Parasite, like in Jordan Peele’s Us, this class alienation takes the form of an aggressive, guerrilla uprising. The result is exhilarating and, well, still pretty dang sad.
Parasite is the best film of the year, and I will go to the mattresses to defend that opinion. After accolades from Cannes to the Toronto Film Festival, this film should be the vehicle for the mainstream acceptance of Bong Joon-Ho as a prestige director. In this writer’s opinion, that moment should have been at least a decade ago, after 2006’s The Host, or more recently, after 2014’s cult hit Snowpiercer (soon to be adapted as a TV series) or the underrated OKJA. While a lot of movies this year (and, likely, every subsequent year until the heat-death of our planet) will deal with class struggle in some form, none are likely to be helmed by as smooth a driver as this one. Strap in, check your privilege, and take a big hit off this Bong.
Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is in theatres on October 11.