Review by Andrew Connolly
Far more attention should have been paid to Parasite director Bong Joon-ho’s speech after being awarded the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. He challenged filmgoers to accept subtitles as a way to explore non-English cinema. Parasite is an incredible argument for why we should do so.
Bong’s third foray into international markets after 2013’s Snowpiercer and 2017’s Okja, Parasite is the first of these three to be entirely in Korean, yet, it serves as the most universal of the group. As effective as previous works are at showcasing the moral and social issues we face at present (class struggle and animal cruelty respectively) Parasite stands out as a film centered on the entrapment that capitalism causes, and the brutalizing effects of poverty.
Following the story of the unemployed Kim family as they scheme to improve their lot in life by posing as employees for a wealthy family, we see a full run-down of the ills of their society’s class system: the vast material divide between the haves and have-nots, the disdain of the wealthy for those beneath them, the resentment of the working class for those above them, and the extremes to which some must go just to get by. As events unfold, we know what is happening on-screen is wrong, and yet we root for the Kims because we know that, for them, there is no alternative.
Through the moral murkiness of it all, the performances of the Kim family add to this tension. The struggle of these characters is shown through a masterful lens of brilliant montages and gut-wrenching juxtaposition. They aren’t bad people per se, they are just in difficult circumstances. With the level-headed son Ki-woo (played by Choi Woo-shik), devilishly crafty sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), and ruthless mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), we are kept from condemning these people by the knowledge that we have much more in common with them than the wealthy Park family (Cho Yeo-jeong shines in particular as naive matriarch Yeon-gyo). We can’t know how we would act in their position.
As events unfold, we know what is happening on-screen is wrong, and yet we root for the Kims because we know that, for them, there is no alternative.
The most credit must go however to Song Kang-ho, playing father Kim Ki-taek, a man doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. Ki-taek’s is being ground down by life’s vicious cycle, where one cannot succeed without prior success. Song’s performance perhaps best conveys why foreign film must be looked at more closely. As a father doing all he can for his family, quietly suffering in silence, Ki-taek could be anyone. And while much of the dilemma present in Parasite relies on South Korean cultural context, it is not miles apart from what people face in every country on Earth. Parasite’s themes are tied to universal human experience, even if the events of the film are highly specific and wonderfully bizarre.
Boasting a script so tightly wound and interlinked that at times Parasite feels like an old-fashioned heist movie, Bong’s fingerprints are all over this movie: a dark comedy with a great representation of the gallows humour so often used by the miserable as a defense. We still see the sudden tonal changes that Bong is known for, however. Parasite is a comedy, drama, and horror film, and often all three in the space of mere seconds. Some films can’t decide what they are. Parasite decides to be several things at once: pointed social commentary, tense character-driven thriller, and insane claustrophobic romper. Bong has tied all of these threads together into a single, multi-layered masterwork, in what is likely to be considered one of the most thematically poignant, powerful, and thought-provoking films of this new decade.
Parasite opens in Ireland today, February 7th.