For a film that has taken so long to arrive in UK cinemas, and given the amount of talk that has surrounded it during award season, it’s difficult to find a fresh angle to approach Parasite. Ever since walking away with the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes, it has gone on to win over almost everyone who has seen it. The most non-English language films can usually hope for is securing a nomination or two in the International sections at the major award shows, but Bong Joon-ho has remained centre stage for the major gongs, while also winning over the American public where it matters.
If you are wondering if Parasite can live up to the hype then worry no more. It does. It’s brilliant. Those in the UK seeing it for the first time may as well put it down as your best film of 2020 right now. Although fans of Bong will know that the brilliance he pulls off in Parasite is far from unexpected. He has been masterfully mixing together genres throughout his career and came to many people's attention with 2003’s superbly conducted Memories of Murder. Having his sixth film, Okja, released on Netflix put his craft in-front of millions of eyes in the West and he has followed that up with his best film to date, one that sees him return to the theme of inequality that has continued to characterise his work.
The beauty of Parasite is that it simultaneously asks you to shut off your brain while also remaining connected to it. The premise of the story is ludicrous, but thanks to its stopwatch pacing you are you swept along in the farce until the final gut punch ending. At the same time, Bong’s commentary on class rings loud and clear, reflecting on the way neoliberalism can strip working class people of their own dignity and pride. The opportunities to make it up the ladder are often few and far between, leaving those on the bottom rung to scrap amongst each other while the rich remain blithely ignorant.
Given the buzz surrounding Bong’s film has been building over the past five to six months, going in blind may prove difficult. But that is the best way to enjoy it, as he winds up the narrative with such precision that the thrills are far more enjoyable when you don’t know direction it is heading towards next. It’s a story of two families, the first of which we meet are the Kims, who are fed up scrabbling to make ends meet and embark on an ambitious scam to climb the social ladder.
Kim Ki-taek’s (Song Kang-ho) son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), blags a job as tutor for the rich Park family. He knows he doesn’t have the real qualifications for the job, as do we, but the Parks are oblivious, and before long the rest of the Kim clan find themselves working in some capacity around the rich family's beautifully manicured home. Ki-taek lands a job as the chauffeur, mum, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), works as the housemaid, and sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) becomes a therapist for the Park’s young son. While they may not have the requisite skills required for each role, their swindling talents are revealed when setting up and working con to the fullest.
As an audience member, choosing which side you are on seems pretty easy at first. But much like the see-sawing nature of the story, Bong constantly plays with perceptions and leaves you to make up your own mind. Deciding who are the parasites of the title and who are the victims will come down to your own moral compass. The Park family are rich and abusive, while the Kims are not, but does that justify how things play out? Even if you decide they do, where do you draw the line and how do you account for those working on the same level as the Kims? They believe that money wipes away any real world problems, an unrealistic belief that Bong highlights to show even the rich can be stereotyped.
All-round the performances are immaculate, with the always excellent Song Kang-ho demonstrating a long-held ability to work through a sea of complicated emotions forced onto his character. He has featured in a string of South Korea’s most memorable films from the past two decades (this is his fourth with Bong) and shines here once again. On the opposing family he is matched by Cho Yeo-jeong, starring as Mrs. Park, who, while nice enough, is utterly clueless and segregated from the reality of life behind the high-walled hedges of their grounds. That said, the mentioning of these two is no slight on the rest of the cast as they are all perfectly suited to their roles.
The details of the Kim family's steady rise through the social ranks is revealed in the smallest of details, as they graduate from surviving on beer and crisps for dinner, to ordering pizza and frying fresh steak on a new home grill. The Parks have no such concerns, calmly sipping on plum extract and honey tea in-between meals. Similarly, stairs play a symbolic role in demonstrating the divide between rich and poor, with the longest of them all taking the Kims back down into their low-level neighbourhood where they scurry home like drenched rodents.
Whether you choose to dig into the intricacies of Bong’s film, or just get swept along in the frenetic energy of the narrative, either way you’ll walk away satisfied. It’s the sort of journey that only a director in total control of their craft is able to achieve. The word masterpiece is often too easily used, and discovering the true meaning of what that word actually means almost feels pointless. But you can easily understand why Parasite has been given that label by so many because finding a reason to disagree feels just as redundant.
Parasite opens in UK cinemas on February 7.