Cannes 2019: Parasite


Bong Joon-ho’s new film thrills Cannes and is a front runner for tomorrow’s Palme d’Or award

Is Bong Joon-ho secretly one of genre cinema’s leading satirists on class, capitalism, and all things right wing? His two English language features, Snowpiercer and Okja, respectively took aim at the very nature of a class system in a crumbling society, and of a soulless corporate world that would cause harm to an innocent creature for profit. For his first fully Korean language film in a decade, he’s still taking aim at societal structures that keep the poorest and most vulnerable people in their place – and despite a return to his native country, his interrogation of high unemployment and its effect on the working class feels universal.

There has been something of a resurgence of class allegories in mainstream cinema of late, and Parasite feels of a piece with Jordan Peele’s Us, even establishing a similar metaphor from the opening moments: a working class family who live underground, dreaming of moving up and away from their current living arrangement. But whereas Peele’s horror film fell apart when the allegory was held up to close scrutiny, Bong’s feels all the more stronger as a result. It’s a precise takedown of oppressive class structures, attacked from a different angle to Snowpiercer, but it’s also a fantastically entertaining film when watched with your brain firmly switched to the “off” position. Like Paul Verhoeven’s Hollywood films, it feels engineered to entertain both the smartest and dumbest person in the room at once; the allegory provides an added depth, but it’s still a fantastic, blackly comic thriller outside of this.

Ki-Taek (Song Kang-ho) and his family are living in a squalid, cramped inner city basement – all unemployed, and resorting to stealing the neighbour’s WiFi just to stay connected to the outside world. One day, son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-shik) is recommended to take a job tutoring the daughter of a rich family as she prepares for university; her family aren’t smart enough to realise that he’s not smart enough to take on such a role, but when he gets the high paying job, the rest of the family decide to swindle the rich people for more money. Daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) takes on the family’s young son for “art therapy”, before getting their driver fired so Ki-Taek can take over. But it’s not until they get the cleaner who has worked at the house for generations fired that things take a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse.

The director has explicitly asked critics not to reveal the film’s secrets, as what starts as a satirisation on breaking through class barriers turns into something altogether more odd – and unexpectedly attuned to the same wavelength as Peele’s Us. It’s truly fascinating how two films in production at the same time, from two pioneering genre filmmakers, are so in sync with how they explore the same issue. Prior to this, however, Bong apes the heist movie formula as he depicts the infiltration of the rich family, using tactics ranging from hiding underwear in the driver’s car, to taking full advantage of the cleaner’s allergy to peaches, all in the name of securing employment. For the first hour, it’s an incredibly breezy farce, as if Soderbergh stopped trying to be cool and made his Ocean’s movies simple, broad high concept comedies. It’s to Bong’s credit that, if the film didn’t start revealing hidden secrets following this opening act, it would still remain the most exhilarating film in the Cannes competition.

Curzon have secured distribution rights for Parasite, so we hope to see it released later in the year in the UK.

Alistair Ryder

Updated: May 24, 2019

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