Bong Joon-Ho has, over the course of the last two decades, become a pretty major voice in world cinema whose reputation seems to grow with each film he puts out… and I’m not the biggest fan. Among modern Korean auteurs I much prefer Park Chan-Wook and Lee Chang-dong. Joon-Ho instead reminds me a bit of Guillermo del Toro in that I think he’s a cool guy and I like what he represents for cinema and he seldom makes a movie I outright dislike but I’ve found him uneven in his output and think that even the best of his films come up a little short of greatness for me. I kind of hated his last movie, Okja, which was a muddle of bad CGI and weird over-the-top acting. I did enjoy his previous effort Snowpiercer a bit more but I still found it a bit silly in places and The Host never really did much for me either. All three of those movies seemed to get an inordinate amount for general wackiness combined with a dose of sophomoric on-the-nose political metaphors. In general I’ve preferred the director more when he steps away from overt genre cinema to make more character oriented thrillers like his breakthrough film Memories of Murder or his 2009 film Mother, but even those movies only did so much for me. Still there’s a reason why I’ve kept watching these movies and given that his latest movie, Parasite, has been widely acclaimed and looked a lot more like the Joon-Ho movies I’ve preferred I was still pretty excited to see it.
The film focuses in on a lower class family in Seoul who live in a dingy garden level apartment and getting by on various scams and grifts. Things start to look up for the family’s college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) when one of his more wealthy friends tips him off about a job he might be good for. The job involves tutoring an extremely wealthy family’s high school daughter and while Ki-woo isn’t actually a college student his friend knows that the mother in the rich family (Cho Yeo-jeong) is really gullible and will be fooled if Ki-Woo’s sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) forges some fake credentials. Once there he sees that this family will indeed be easy to grift and hatches a scheme to have his sister pose as a tutor for their younger son and after that works they conspire to have the family’s driver and maid fired and then replaced with their father (Song Kang-ho) and mother (Jang Hye-jin). So they’ve infiltrated the family and are living on them parasitically if you will, but soon the fallout of their actions will catch up with them in unexpected ways that will have life altering consequences for all involved.
So, as you read that summery the question whether or not we’re really supposed to be on the side of this family given that they are plainly committing fraud and don’t seem terribly guilty about disrupting other people’s lives to get what they want, and the answer to that is complicated. The short version is that these grifters are just generally more likable people despite their rather amoral actions than their wealthy victims, but the movie finds very interesting ways to set up this dynamic. For one thing, it very carefully avoids painting the rich family as being actively malicious in its behavior and doesn’t treat them as being devoid of virtue. They seem to genuinely have love and affection for their children and they don’t intentionally mistreat their employees to their face. Rather their great sin is that they just have kind of a shitty attitude about people. They speak with incredible condescension about their employees when they aren’t listening and while the grifters did conspire to screw over some of the previous domestic workers at the house their plans only worked because they knew the wealthy family would be selfish and uncaring enough to judge and dispose of them the second they became inconvenient. Meanwhile, the family of grifters have a certain salt of the earth charm through most of the movie and while the movie never excuses them for their crimes it does show that they were motivated by legitimate need and seemed like relatively victimless crimes when they set out to do them.
This element of class warfare is embedded in Parasite but does not entirely define it. This is not an “issue” movie, at least not on the surface. In a way it’s trying to do the same thing that Snowpiercer was doing, comment on wealth inequality within the context of an entertaining film, except this one is more entertaining and isn’t making its point through a blunt as hell metaphor. You don’t, however, need to really care that much about the issues of class at the center of the film to enjoy it. Aside from the fact that it’s not in English and that it gets kind of crazy toward the end this is actually made with some clear commercial sensibilities and will be quite accessible to most audiences. In that sense I’m almost kind of surprised that it’s managed to be so widely loved by institutions like Cannes who generally tend to reward more formally unconventional fare. But that is in some ways the film’s great strength, it knows exactly what compromises to make in order to work for both highbrow and lowbrow audience and it achieves a movie that is going to be very widely enjoyed for what it is.
****1/2 out of Five