It’s late. Past midnight. I’ve just gotten back from a screening of the film Parasite. I have an essay due yesterday that I haven’t finished the reading for. I need to sleep. But fuck. I cannot calm my racing mind down until I write this out. Where did this even come from?!
I mean, I know where it came from. I’ve been charting its course since it won the Palme d’Or, the most prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then, it’s been nominated for nearly 300 awards worldwide, winning over 160 of them (a statistic Bong himself seemed unaware of in the Q&A – I suppose one stops keeping track after a while), with many more still pending, including a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. It has enthralled audiences and critics alike, becoming the talk of the town and being subject to a never-ending wave of five-star reviews. Well, here’s one more to add to the pile, to be inevitably drowned out by the cacophony of well-deserved praise being shouted in the film’s direction.
Parasite is a South Korean film directed by the adorably charming and dad-energy radiating Bong Joon-Ho (known for other works such as Snowpiercer and Okja), who did a live satellite Q&A after the screening along with the film’s star, Song Kang-Ho. Before I say anything else about the film, I have to be honest with my recommendation: stop reading and just go see it. This is a film best experienced if you have no idea what to expect. I can talk for ages about the acting and cinematography and themes and messages and emotions and genius of this film, but then you’ll go in looking for those things, trying to spot them, when you should just sit back and enjoy the crazy rollercoaster. Really just experience the film, uncritically, before you over analyse the brilliance behind it, as I have found it impossible to resist doing.
What follows contains mild spoilers.
The film is basically the tale of two families – the extremely rich Parks, and the extremely poor Kims – and the latter’s attempt to infiltrate the home of the former in order to gain employment from them. But that is a gross oversimplification; an intriguing premise that slowly evolves into something far deeper. At its heart, the film is a political and social statement about class disparity (a theme common to Bong’s filmmaking, such as in Snowpiercer where the lower classes at the back of the train revolt against the upper classes towards the front). And its argument is a nuanced one. We leave the theatre questioning who the titular parasite is: the impoverished family who use cunning and ingenuity to claw their way from the bottom because they have no other choice if they want to survive? Who in the process threaten the livelihoods of others and use deceit to leech as much as they can from the Park family? Or the rich family, who continually show disdain and disregard for the wellbeing of their servants while simultaneously being portrayed as generous, even nice, people for providing the Kim family with paid employment (even if this is just handing out mere scraps of what they have) in return? It’s hard to tell. In the Q&A Bong discusses how he purposefully muddied the waters of morality, saying “all characters in the film are in a grey zone”, explaining that it is never easy to divide between good and evil in reality, and so it shouldn’t be any different in his films.
This preoccupation with reality is a key feature of Bong’s filmmaking style. Parasite is intentionally difficult to classify into a genre because, Bong says, he is never really aware of genre or tone when filming. He doesn’t want to be restricted by any generic conventions; he wants us to see it as a reality. This pays off marvellously. For much of the film there is a lighter, comedic tone, making this genuinely one of the funniest films of the past year – the sharp wit and comedic timing of the writing, acting, and editing all shining through. Yet there is always a subtle feeling of insecurity throughout which builds exponentially to the thrilling and terrifying crescendo of the third act.
Bong has frequently been compared to Hitchcock in his style of filmmaking, and this is a fair comparison, as Bong himself cited Hitchcock as a crucial inspiration to him in the Q&A. In particular, he mentioned a quote of Hitchcock’s that has stuck with him: “there’s no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”. And it is this escalation of tension that Bong excels at as a director, and he knows it, he says, “of all the emotions you can experience in cinema… the emotion I’m most confident I can express… is fear and anxiety” (following up with a quip about clearly having issues he needs to discuss with his therapist). Throughout the film he commands the atmosphere of the cinema. I’m laughing at one moment and the next I’m on the edge of my seat with my hands over my mouth in shocked anticipation, the girl next to me letting out a scream of horror as she realises what’s about to happen before the event even transpires. The terror is in the anticipation of the bang., and damn does Bong succeed at creating that terror. Song referred to the director as a “mischievous genius” during the Q&A, and it’s impossible to disagree.
The entire cast turns in astounding performances, but particular mention has to be paid to Song Kang-Ho, who portrays Ki-taek, the father of the Kim family. Bong describes him as having a “beautiful voice colour… he can express a million things with just one short word” – an odd, but elegantly accurate way to put it as each of his actions, expressions, and line deliveries feels incredibly deliberate.
In terms of cinematography, there aren’t many stand-out, stunning, or particularly ‘avant-garde’ shots like in some of Bong’s other works, but there is a beauty in the simplicity of it all, as he uses the cinematography instead to add to the symbolism and depth of the theme of class division. The film is largely set in two interior spaces: the homes of the two families. The dimly lit, bleakly coloured cramped spaces of the semi-basement the Kim family lives in, creates feelings of suffocation and claustrophobia. This contrasts greatly with the bright mansion of the Park family with its large, open, beautifully modern rooms, sunlight flooding in through the windows and the bright green grass growing outside. There is a distinct shift in atmosphere when the film transitions between these two homes.
These themes are universal, so any fears of this not translating well to audiences outside of South Korea should be quickly put aside. As Bong himself said in an interview, “We all live in the same country now: that of capitalism”.
I could ramble for hours about the nuances, brilliant moments and symbolism of this film. There’s so much to talk about. But that would require getting into some serious spoilers and my tutor’s passive-aggressive comments about time management are still haunting me so it’s back to essay writing. But I seriously recommend you watch this film at least twice to pick up on all the little hidden gems you missed the first time around. I certainly will. Hell, I’ll see it three or four times. I’ll buy the Blu-Ray. And I don’t even have a Blu-Ray player.
Suffice it to say, the film is, without a hint of exaggeration, a masterpiece. One of the best films of the decade, and my personal favourite of 2019. Go watch it.
Parasite opens in UK cinemas today.