A receding hairline is not inherently creepy. I see one in the mirror daily without much thought beyond a vague wistfulness for those follicles whose usefulness is consigned to the past. But like so many little everyday details in Parasite — a packet of hot sauce, a walkie-talkie — it will be hard to look at that slowly expanding bald patch the same way again. Parasite is everyday life reflected back in one’s face with the veneer of the everyday draining away. What lies beneath is unsettling.
Festival favourite director Bong Joon-ho is back on the big screen in a big way with Parasite, recently screened in Australia thanks to KOFFIA. After two imaginative international productions with Snowpiercer and Okja, director Bong returns to an everyday urban South Korea. This setting brings the social satire and commentary often baked into his films to the forefront. Snowpiercer had its plebs trailing behind the moneyed elites in a futuristic train. Metaphor like that is still present in Parasite, with the well-off living on the upper slopes of a hill while the struggling working class dwell beneath them at the bottom of the heap. In this film though, there is no fanciful setting or elements to distract from the uncomfortable realities that Bong wants to discuss. The class critique is right in the audience’s face from the get-go.
The Kim family — father, mother, daughter, son — jobless despite their best efforts, scrape what they can from the world around them to subsist in their cramped basement home. Their mirror image the Park family — father, mother, daughter, son — live in the spacious former home of an architect, impeccably managed and maintained by their housekeeper. When the tutor of the rich Park daughter goes overseas, events lead to the poor Kim son being hired as a replacement. The Kims waste no time exploiting this opportunity for all it’s worth.
Director Bong has always been one to play with film form, his features hard to define by any one genre descriptor. (The opening paragraph of our Mother review is just as applicable now as when it was first posted.) Parasite centres around family drama, but there are many shades to this film. There is a heist movie feel at one stage, but forget the glamour — the Kims are not Ocean’s Eleven. The whole film is also leavened with black comedy and, as the plot unfolds, heavy with horror and thrills.
Taken on its own, Parasite sounds like a horror film title and appropriately it’s the horror aspects that really make it stick in the mind. Some are subtle, like a couple of shots of people talking that go on so long without cutting they become disquieting. Some are more obvious, like camera angles typically used to set up jump scares or a darkened doorway framed between two characters. The use of misdirection is masterful. Sometimes something happens, sometimes not. The kicker is that these techniques of film language are communicating that this is a horror film, but the lurking undercurrents are nothing beyond human understanding and the resulting dislocation feels so wrong. There is no monster under the bed, but there is an overriding sense of tension and creeping dread; realities of life we sweep under the rug welling up or breaking through to disturb our comfortable existence. The primary fear of the story is that the Kims’ facade is going to come crashing down, but the question is how.
The primary stumbling block to enjoying the film could be some plot machinations stretched thin. The Kims’ subterfuge relies on the Parks making quite a few decisions that could have turned out differently, yet the motivations behind them are accounted for and from an audience perspective play neatly into the strain of dark humour. So much detail in the setting and story had been solidly laid early on that it was easy for this viewer to buy in to later story developments, but anyone alienated by the shifting tone and not sold on the film by the midpoint will likely be thrown permanently overboard. In a wider context, given the history of class struggle and the failure of ideas like social credit to be seriously cross-examined in the mainstream, it’s a little disappointing Bong doesn’t even hint at any remedy to societal ills beyond finding a way to cope on an individual basis. It’s a tall order for a film, but Metropolis offered some thoughts way back in 1927. Bong is an amazing director. It would be fascinating to watch him try.
Something he does very well again is draw stellar performances from yet another incredible ensemble cast. It’s made up of well-known faces such as Song Kang-ho (Mr Kim) and lesser known performers like Chang Hyae-jin (Mrs Kim) but the actors cohere really well. The Kim family are freer in expressing themselves, while the upper crust Parks are more restrained, but still go to some unexpected places. Many character moments teeter on the edge of a five cent piece, sometimes flipping as soon as they land.
Most importantly, everyone is sympathetic, which makes the film all the more devastating. There’s no easy emotional escape, like seeing villains get their comeuppance. Bong is scathing in criticising systemic inequality, yet kind to his characters. When Mr Kim expresses pleasure that his son has scored a job, it is genuine when it could easily come across as sarcastic. The upper class are not portrayed as evil, just oblivious. The way the Parks talk about someone’s smell being like an old radish is awful, but not nasty. It’s simply not of their world. The dark reflection of their life of luxury is people living in subhuman conditions and their unawareness of this is more disconcerting than if they had been willfully ignorant. An event that is water off a duck’s back for people of means can be overwhelming for those without.
With Parasite it really feels like Bong is dropping all the pretense and simply saying what he wants to say. He took home the Palme d’Or from Cannes this year, so it seems to have struck a chord. The film’s message could be seen as too blunt or politically charged, if not for being housed within such a well-constructed movie with such well-drawn characters. It’s not a revolutionary call to action, more a plea to show some humanity. To whom does the title refer? The lower class leeching what they can from the rich? The upper class sitting pretty in the hive sustaining themselves on the hard yakka of the poor workers? The pest insects that bookend scenes near the opening and closing of the film? Probably all, to a greater or lesser extent.
At several points during the film a discordant droning sound hovers in the background, similar to in The Dark Knight where it indicates The Joker’s disturbing influence, but less palpable. To close out Parasite, the calming credits music feels like a salve on all the trauma. It’s hollow reassurance. Bong is not so much pricking our conscience as driving a screw into it. The poor will always be there, and as we sleep safe in our beds that awareness will — and should — make us uneasy, until it can be made right.