We are all in the gutter but some of us are reaching for the ceiling to piggyback on our neighbours’ WiFi. This is where we find the four members of the Kim family at the start of Parasite, the 2019 Palme d’Or-winner that has gone on to scoop a Golden Globe, two Baftas and four Oscars.
Crammed together in a stink bug-infested basement behind a rubbish dump in an unnamed city (the film was partly shot around Seoul), the Kims scratch out a living for a handful of South Korean won until their son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), catches a break that transforms their prospects. He lands a part-time job as a language tutor to the teenage daughter of a wealthy family, the Parks. Once he is installed in their stylish home, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, wood-and-stone décor and clean geometric lines, the movie begins to resemble an episode of Grand Designs hijacked by Hitchcock.
Upon learning that the girl’s mother is also seeking an art therapist for her young son, Ki-woo recommends a friend respected in the field; in fact, it’s his sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Once Ki-jeong is ingratiated into the household, the next task is for her and Ki-woo to get their parents on the payroll too. The Parks already have a chauffeur and housekeeper, but between them the Kims conspire to oust those employees from their posts. Soon it is the siblings’ father (Song Kang-ho) who is driving Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyun) to work, and their mother (Chang Hyae-jin) who is doing the laundry and rustling up bowls of beef ram-don.
By the midway point of Parasite, the Kims are fully in the bloodstream of the Parks, who are oblivious to their staff’s connections to one another. Previous films about the infiltrating underclass, such as The Servant, Theorem or Brimstone and Treacle, have insisted on a sexual component to the ambush. But the Kims are interestingly devoid of desire for anything except status. Sex is presented here as a luxury that only the wealthy can afford; one scene shows the Kims rendered even more lowly and infantilised when they find themselves accidentally eavesdropping on their employers, who are having sex just inches away.
The rapturous comic bliss of seeing the Kims scam their way into the lap of luxury can’t last, and in many ways the first half of Parasite is a light-hearted rehearsal for its darker flipside. Hints of the nastiness to come are, in minor form, there from the start. The Parks’ youngest child brandishes a toy tomahawk and hides out in the illuminated cone of his wigwam (one of several homes-within-homes that we see in the movie). Food is involved in some of the film’s initial mischief: a simple peach doubles as a weapon, and an incriminating crime scene is staged using curry sauce as a stand-in for blood, though the real stuff will be in plentiful supply later. Even the spray of the sprinkler on the Parks’ lawn seems to gesture toward the rainstorm and ensuing flood that cleanses the Kims of their subservience and their illusions and marks the film’s decisive shift into horror.
Not since Jonathan Demme’s 1986 thriller Something Wild, which also addressed class structure on a granular level, have two opposing halves of one movie been balanced with such elegance and poise. In both cases the audience is asked to pay in the second part of the film for those guilty pleasures that it enjoyed in the first. The price for cheering on the Kims as they scramble up the class ladder in the early scenes is to wince as they crash back down again, bashing their heads on each rung as they go, and to recognise the ways in which they are complicit in their own oppression.
Inequality may be represented by the Parks, but it is the Kims who collude in its maintenance by deferring to the rich (“Let’s offer a prayer of gratitude to the great Mr Park!”), dreaming of the transformative properties of wealth (“If I had money, I’d be nice too”) and having no concept of class solidarity.
The writer-director Bong Joon-ho eloquently expresses subtext through action, so that an escape from the Parks’ home in the middle of the night becomes not only a thrilling sequence in its own right, but a sort of mobile X-ray of the various strata of society, from the luxurious neighbourhoods in the hills all the way down to the ghettos. It isn’t only the Parks’ dwelling that has hidden compartments, split levels and secret passageways that seem to burrow through capitalism’s digestive system; the whole of the city is structured like an enormous snakes and ladders board, the slightest misstep prefiguring an ugly fall from grace.
Like the same director’s 2006 monster movie The Host, to which it is connected by title as well as tone, Parasite mimics that multi-layered effect so that it works as entertainment and analysis, treat and treatise. The clarity of Bong’s film-making is remarkable, but it’s his skill in shaping argument into a spectacle that makes Parasite worthy of something more valuable than any Oscar: an audience’s time and money, not to mention its admiration and awe.
dir. Bong Joon-ho
This article appears in the 05 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit