A few minutes into Bong Joon-Ho’s latest masterpiece “Parasite”, I briefly entertained the thought that he may have finally learned to lighten up a little, at least thematically. The film started off lighthearted and I found myself chuckling at the hijinks of the Kims, a ne’er-do-well family of con artists.
But my first few impressions of the film couldn’t be more off the mark. “Parasite” is probably his darkest film and the most scathing satire about class and society to date, even surpassing the morbid majesty of “Memories of Murder” and the quirky and depressing “Mother”.
Bong’s usual muse, veteran actor Kang-ho Song, plays Ki-taek, the hard luck patriarch of the Kim family. I consider him one of the greatest actors of any generation, and the touchstone for all the amazing performances by “Parasite’s” cast.
I’ve seen Kang in more than a dozen movies and he’s every bit as chameleon-like as Daniel Day-Lewis, and I dare say, a better actor. He has this rare ability to occupy several emotional spaces at once, and this is on full display in “Parasite”. He can be hilarious, heartbreaking and devastatingly murderous, all in the span of a few seconds.
Things begin to look up for the hard-luck Kims when Ki-Woo, the son, finagles a gig as a tutor for the wealthy Park family, to teach English to a teenage girl. The Parks are the polar opposites of the Kims. They are successful and firmly ensconced in South Korea’s elite class.
Ki-Woo’s schemes to ingratiate his whole family to the Parks soon succeeds. Thanks to skullduggery, he manages to push out the Parks’ household help to make way for the other members of his family.
The father, mother, and sister eventually become the Parks’ providers of what the Kims call “premium” domestic services. But it’s also this successful con that leads both the Kims and the Parks down a path towards purgatory — both physical and psychological.
Everything’s going swimmingly for the Kims until one stormy night, an unexpected visitor to the Park household sets off a series of events that would unravel their scheme to defraud their employers.
Under another auteur’s direction, “Parasite’s” progression towards its shocking and satisfying climax could have been very pedestrian. But Bong Joon-Ho is no ordinary director. He’s in full control of his talents as a storyteller, and has a style all his own.
He’s mastered atmosphere, scene, and tone. All films are in the end, emotionally manipulative. But the best are those that feel unforced and natural, which is a hallmark of Bong’s movies.
For a comparison, watch any film directed by Steven Spielberg, probably one of the most ham-fisted directors of all time. His attempts to sway emotions in his most successful blockbusters (“ET”, “Schindler’s List”, “Artificial Intelligence”) are obvious and cringe-worthy. Subtlety is not one of his strong suits.
Bong respects his viewers’ intelligence, and he trusts us to understand everything he’s trying to do on screen. In “Parasite”, he makes us believe we’re seeing a conventional film about con artists and how they’re trying to get away with their crime.
But “Parasite” takes an unexpected turn and serves up such a surprising twist. Bong uses this device time and again in his films, and it never feels forced or artificial.
He also uses visually spectacular and bizarre scenes that serve as his playful celluloid signature. In “Parasite” it involves urine, buckets of water and the town drunkard in super slow motion.
But what elevates his body of work to the sublime is his penchant for social commentary. Almost all of Bong Joon-Ho’s films are about class war, the gaping divide between the rich and poor, and to a lesser extent, the evils of capitalism. He has a laser-like focus on highlighting society’s inequities. This is probably why his films resonate so well with audiences, even if they’re mostly in Korean.
The Kims, despite all their flaws are also victims of circumstance. The father and mother come from humble beginnings and weren’t always scammers. That’s true, especially for the mother, who won a medal in hammer-throwing in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
During the 1980s, South Korea was undergoing a dramatic economic transformation. The country was also suffering political spasms but it was rapidly industrializing, transforming it from a poor third-world country to a developed nation. The growth was driven by the rise of giant conglomerates.
This development also concentrated most of the wealth in the hands of the few. As South Korea’s economy boomed, so did the coffers of the giant companies that were run by the country’s elite families who made sure that their wealth was passed onto their children.
Today, South Korea is a nation on edge. It’s a wealthy country but the gap between the haves and have-nots has exploded. The current President Moon Jae-in ran on a platform to narrow that wealth divide. But now, protests are now a near daily occurrence, with some devolving into riots.
But South Korea isn’t unique. Unrest over wealth inequities is raging in Chile, Lebanon, South Africa, France, and here in the United States.
Bong’s films do so well with global audiences because they capture the growing rage over the indignities heaped upon the working classes.
So what avenues are available to those desperate to lift their station in life?
For the Kims, it’s a confidence scheme to get even with society. But as with any criminal enterprise portrayed in most films, the perpetrators eventually get their comeuppance, though it’s not really clear who the real parasites are.
Is it the downtrodden Kims who try to provide a service designed to fleece their customers? Or is it the wealthy and spoiled Parks who rely on the working classes to live a life of comfort?
Like the real world, it’s the poor and disadvantaged who eventually pay the higher price in Bong’s films.
As “Parasite” approaches its explosive climax, humiliation upon humiliation is heaped on the Kims, most of it on the father Ki-Taek.
In Ki-Taek, we see the everyman trying to make it in the world despite the desperate circumstances he faces. When he’s finally cornered in the end, he resorts to an act that results in the destruction of everything he holds dear.
But ultimately “Parasite” isn’t just about the Kims. It’s about us.
With his work, Bong holds a mirror to our faces, to let us see our flaws, ugliness, petty concerns, and jealousies. While we may be horrified at what we see, the film also shows us that there is always a way to reclaim a better version of our humanity, regardless of how costly it may be.