I feel obliged to tell you right off the bat that if you stumbled upon this review just wanting to know whether you should watch Bong Joon-ho’s latest suspense-drama, Parasite (Gisaengchung), then the short answer is a compelling yes, you should! Book those tickets, run to the nearest cinema, and waste no time because this Palme d’Or winner is unquestionably one of the best films to come out this year.
Parasite, originally titled as “Gisaengchung”, presents to us two Korean families. The first one lives in a dank, run-down semi basement apartment, whose only ventilation is a small window that gives the family a nice view of drunkards pissing on the streets. The patriarch of this family is Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), and together with his wife Choong Sook (Jang Hye-jin), they try to make ends meet by folding pizza boxes for a living. Their children, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-Dam) are out of college, and spends their time leeching off the wifi connections of their neighbors.
The second family of the story, literally lives inside a work of art. Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) is a wealthy tech company man, whose house is an artwork designed by a famous architect. His wife, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yo-Jeong) is an elegant, “simple”-minded housewife, who doesn’t mind spending extra for the education and care of their two children – their dainty daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ziso), and their hyperactive son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun).
One thing leads to another and these two contrasting, yet in some ways similar, families cross paths. Through heist-level deceit, a bit of acting, and excellent Photoshop, the Kims manage to find a way to get employed by the Park family. Finally, their pizza-folding days are over.
The dynamics of the two families were amusing at first, and we laugh at the ingenuity of the Kims, and the gullibility of the Parks. Despite the evident deception happening in the story, the film doesn’t make it hard for us to root for either family. The Kims merely want a way out of poverty, and we actually cheer them on with their scheming to get real jobs. The Parks on the other hand, with their polished and sheltered lifestyle, are still relatable in the sense that they only want the best for their children.
However, the film seamlessly morphs from being a family comedy to a suspense thriller. Just as much as we love we both families, it’s easy to see that they are both problematic and morally ambiguous. The Kims start getting their jobs at the expense of other workers, and we realize that the Parks literally hate the “stench” of the lower class. Bong Joon-ho masterfully navigates us through this change of tone as we become more intimate with each character, and we start noticing every subtle flaw with every glaring red flag.
The laughs gradually turn into dread and we start seeing the huge gap between these two patriarchal family units. The male members of the Park family can literally sniff out the smell of poverty from the Kims. When Yeon-Kyo feels thankful for previous night’s rain because it blew away the dark clouds, she doesn’t know that the same rain flooded the Kims’ home, and they had to spend the night at a covered court. The Parks are “nice” and the Kims are crude. But it’s just as how Choong Sook says it is: “Money is an iron; it smoothes out all the wrinkles.” If she were rich, maybe she would be “nice” too!
You realize that that poor literally lives below the ground, surviving on scraps left by the rich above them. All that seething tension eventually builds up to a shocking, albeit unsurprising climax that leaves you with mixed feelings of satisfaction, horror, and interestingly, even regret. The ending is unhurried, letting you take your time to soak in the turn of events. It’s conclusion is slow, but no less disturbing.