Patrick Preziosi on Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ (2019)
In hindsight, Korean director Bong Joon-ho has always been ripe for an international crossover; an assured stylist and no stranger to a healthy dose of knuckle-headed humour, his already diverse filmography has stood at the generous median between self-conscious art cinema, and more digestible genre fare. It’s been a juggling act, and as impressive as it can be, there’s always been an inherent clumsiness when it comes to the precise moments in which comedy is grafted onto stone-eyed police procedural, or vice versa. His newest, Parasite / Gisaengchung, isn’t the apex of this cumulative formula (and thankfully so) yet it finds Bong oscillating subtly between both indulgence and restraint, an appropriate two poles for what he’s deemed a “family tragicomedy”.
And already from the jump, Bong is exploiting the surroundings of Parasite’s destitute central family for rapid-fire physical humor and witticism-laced dialogue; it’s something like a politically foregrounded screwball comedy. The Kim family, comprised of father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, in his most nuanced performance since Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine / Milyang), wife Choong-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) — all quite jobless, save for an occasional pizza-box folding gig — live in a semi-basement, a glorified hovel at the end of an alley, with windows at an undignified street level. In an effort to leech off of an open WiFi network, all four are introduced traipsing around their home, phones in hand, trying to connect to something, anything, among the adjacent homes and businesses. Hong Kyong-po’s clean and agile camerawork traces the varying nooks and crevices of the claustrophobic living space, hemming the family into a distinct social caste without ever harping on the obvious in what is essentially Bong deconstructing of the upstairs-downstairs dramedy.
Introduced like an inverse to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s surrogate family of petty criminals in Shoplifters / Manbiki kazoku (2018), the Kims can occasionally scan as a gang of grizzled cons, rather than an actual bloodline. There’s a disarming tenderness to the way the four egg each other on as they start to insert themselves into the peripheries of the affluent Park family, set in motion when Ki-woo’s collegiate friend Min (Seo-joon Park) suggests he take over as English tutor for the second youngest Park, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), lest one of his slovenly peers slide in and take advantage of the teenaged girl. Ki-woo agrees with trepidation at the outset — he’s been rejected from university four times himself at this point — but grows more comfortable once Ki-jung whips up some impressively forged academic documents that present him as a post-grad.
The Parks themselves are sequestered obliviously away in a renowned architect’s pet-project, an art-deco amalgamation of smooth surfaces, floor-to-ceiling windows, and even a pivotal, secret bunker (all rendered expertly by production designer Lee Ha-jun, and shot with a discomfiting flatness by Hong). While father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) whiles away at some sort of software company, his earnings are the life force for his children’s own extracurricular developments, doled out frivolously by wife Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong). She’s also convinced her son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun), is an artistic genius in the making, his semi-abstract scribbles the conveyance of some sort of repressed trauma. Detecting such upper-class gullibility, Ki-woo easily slots his sister in as an art therapist, “Jessica”, posing as a mutual friend from the University of Illinois.
As Parasite continues by at such a delightfully confident clip, the chain of “unbiased” employment recommendations continues, as driver and housekeeper are done away with in intricately constructed plans executed with the kind of delirious montage of a Soderbergh heist; Ki-taek and Choong-sook soon fill those respective positions. Any discerning audience will be able to foresee that the Kims’s ruthlessness will turn itself back on them, but the real joy comes from how tightly wound the entire film is, regardless of conventional structuring. Bong doubles down on initially ephemeral visual flourishes that manifest themselves as perfectly matched puzzle pieces later on, from sanguine hot sauce dribbled onto a slice of pizza, to a layer of peach fuzz being sensually shaved off with a razor.
These elemental touches have been a consistent preoccupation of Bong’s — Memories of Murder / Salinui chueok (2003) and Mother / Madeo (2009) both greatly featured swaying fields of tall grass and torrential rainfall — though such evocative tics have been eclipsed by the eccentric talking-points that come packaged with his more recent films. Now once again firmly grounded in a contemporary Korean milieu, the director has the opportunity to bend the strictures of social realism without tipping over into something as utterly audacious as Snowpiercer (2013). Bong has said that while the film’s presentation of the increasingly dire issues of class in Korea is its primary intent, he’s gone to great lengths to fashion two iterations of economic status that are somewhat removed from their real-life inspirations. The gulf between the Kims and the Parks is then rendered a more labyrinthine one, opting for the visceral properties of filmmaking to make such unjust disparities apparent, while never reverting to either fetishisation or preaching.
A third party, the Parks’s original housekeeper — Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee) — returns later, bestowing a second act twist that implicates all involved in the act, whether wittingly or not. A subterranean horror reveals itself, and Bong’s intoxicating-cum-sobering cynicism comes to the fore, a gut-punch realisation of how systematised the film’s concerns of class have become. The Parks’s own innocence in what they’ve perpetuated doesn’t circumvent their own ignorant complacency, thusly positing a modern age that is more akin to a serpent eating its own tail than anything else, and terrifyingly so.
And then there’s the flood; a rainstorm that is merely happenstance becomes Bong’s most unabashed set-piece, fully realising his aforementioned fascination with the natural world. It’s Parasite’s most obvious foray into pointed symbolism, but as Bong lets the waters rise, the flood’s inevitably unbearable aftermath strikes a note of operatic tragedy, even more so than the Shakespearean bloodbath at the film’s climax. Though Bong may compose this and many other of the film’s frequent narrative depth charges with a Biblical weight, the entire film deservedly revels in the blunt truth of just how commonplace it can all feel.
Parasite screened as part of the 57th New York Film Festival and is scheduled for UK release February 2020.