One of the figures of the Korean New Wave movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Bong Joon-ho ('Barking Dogs Never Bite', 'Memories of Murder', 'Mother', 'The Host', 'Snowpiercer') is a filmmaker that is known for making dark films that defy convention. Never wanting to be pigeonholed as a filmmaker, Bong continually challenges himself by tackling various genres. His films always manage to offer some glimmer of hope, even when telling dark and complicated stories.
The last time Bong appeared at Sydney Film Festival, he was touring 'Okja' in 2017. It was produced by Netflix and, embarrassingly, they insisted on accompanying it with a trailer for David Ayer's terrible 'Bright'. Bong's film addressed themes like the environment and animal rights, but the clash of different cartoon sensibilities and the battle between Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal to deliver the most outlandish caricatures made 'Okja' a choppy mix of anti-corporate farce and Miyazaki fantasy.
Now Bong is back at the festival in 2019 with 'Parasite', a film clearly made by a director working at the height of his powers. It is something to behold. Bong, to be quite frank, is the fucking dude.
When 'Parasite' opens, the lower-class Kim family (like 'The Host', they are a dysfunctional family who never reached their individual potentials) are not only trying to solve a stinkbug problem, but also how to figure out which local cafe's free Wi-fi they can leech off. Patriarch Ki-taek (Bong's long-time collaborator, Song Kang-ho, 'Okja', 'Snowpiercer') advises his kids to hold their phones towards the corner of the ceiling, while his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) lazily folds pizza boxes as the family's sole and minimal source of income. It's not enough money to afford tuition for their young adult children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik, 'Train to Busan') and Ki-jung (Park So-dam, 'Ode to the Goose'), but they make just enough to stay in their squalid sub-basement apartment. Sure, belligerent drunks urinate in the alleyway next to their living room window, but they get "free" fumigation by leaving that window open when exterminators visit the nearby houses. Stinkbug problem solved!
The tide turns in their favour when one of Ki-woo's friend gives up his gig as a private English tutor to Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the daughter of a wealthy family, so he can travel abroad. Before he leaves, he recommends the dim but cunning Ki-woo (who failed the university entrance exam four times and thus has been studying the same thing over again for four years) for the job, bringing him into the orbit of the Parks, who are rich beyond measure. Unlike the cramped apartment in which the Kims reside, the Parks live in a spacious house that used to be occupied by the famous architect who built it, with a handsome chauffeur (Lee Sun-gyun) and a housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) who see to their every need (incredibly, Bong designed both the Kim's apartment and Park's house himself).
Armed with forged college papers, Ki-woo manages to make a good impression on Mrs Park (Cho Yeo-jeong, 'The Target'), and even gets his sister in on the scam when Mrs Park mentions that her young son needs a new art teacher. After being employed, Ki-jeong designs a plot to get Mr Park's driver fired and her dad Ki-taek employed as the new driver of the family. Once Ki-taek is employed, he manages to get the final Kim family member, his wife Choong-sook, employed as the housekeeper of the house. Just like that, the clan of grifters have found a source of income: the Park family.
For the first hour or so of its perfectly-paced and flab-free running time, 'Parasite' is a very funny heist movie (think a low-rent version of Choi Dong-hoon's 'The Thieves'). We watch the Kim family amusingly enact their sting with the precision of Swiss clockwork, cutting stylishly back and forth between the planning and the execution of the lies, manipulation, sabotage, gaslighting and the shaving of peaches.
Achieving their ultimate goal, however, has side effects. The Kim's new place in the extremely comfortable lives of the Parks means some stark clarity is thrown on the divide between the two families and where they rank in the hierarchy of South Korea, a highly competitive society where success in education and business is valued above all.
Conformity and social expectations, place of birth, job, place of residence, accent, and clothing all factor into the endless judgement of status in the country, which rises from a complex web of history and development that has culminated in an autocratic, work-driven society that pays the majority of its workforce a severely low wage. In such a consumerist society, social mobility becomes a primary motivation, and in South Korea, the best way to get rich currently is to be born that way. The country has industrialised so quickly precisely because there is little chance of social mobility. Much like being refused entry to a stranger's opulent house, when someone shuts the door in your face there's little chance of becoming anything other than one more drone in the horde of ignored working class people behind you.
Without giving away spoilers, the film gradually becomes a sociological thriller before darkening into a gasp-inducing horror movie.
Bong conceived and began writing 'Parasite' in 2013, when he was filming the critically-acclaimed 'Snowpiercer' starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. According to his Q&A at Sydney Film Festival, the germ of the idea formed after he noticed a stain on his trousers one day and wondered how it got there. Both movies portray the rich and the poor, but instead of the science fiction setting of a train in 'Snowpiercer', he focuses 'Parasite' on two families - one poor, one rich - to show the wealth gap through "the most basic unit of our lives".
The Parks are a Westernised family who live in a sleek, modernist home with white picket fences and who buy toys and gadgets from the United States, exemplifying the upper crust. Ki-taek's family, meanwhile, lives in a sordid apartment that might be flooded with sewerage water if it rains too heavily. It soon becomes clear that Bong is asking the audience exactly which family the 'Parasite' of the title is supposed to reference. Without giving away spoilers, the film gradually becomes a sociological thriller before darkening into a gasp-inducing horror movie.
Bong has talked about his past as a student activist and affirmed his membership in South Korea's socialist New Progressive Party, albeit with the petit-bourgeois reservation that "whatever the party or organisation, it isn't possible to exceed the power of one passionate individual." He is not subtle when it comes to the themes of his films, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. 'Snowpiercer' isn't so much an allegory for class warfare - it is class warfare, just set on the science fiction environment of an ever-moving train. 'The Host' is the venerable monster-movie warning that our careless destruction of the planet will come back to bite us - maybe literally.
'Parasite', maybe even more so than 'Okja', shifts gears in total service of its class politics, infecting the film's initial breezy dark comedy with notes of rage and melancholy. It turns out to be a relative of Kim Jee-woon's 'The Quiet Family' (also starring Song Kang-ho, it centres on a family who owns a hunting lodge in a remote area, whose customers always happen to end up dying) and Kim Ki-duk's '3-Iron' (the story of an almost invisible drifter who goes around breaking into empty houses).
All too often, explicitly political art fails as both art and politics. Socialists shouldn't put up with shonky imitations of popular genres, nor with political messages denuded of anything but the lowest common denominator.
What makes 'Parasite' so satisfying is that it commits neither error. It is an engrossing, stylish and near-perfect movie, and its underlying themes go beyond merely pointing out class exploitation to challenge the logic of capital. Though he is often juggling a mosaic of characters, themes and social issues, Bong never eschews his anarchic impulses and dark humour. 'Parasite' is a movie that should be seen as widely as possible, if only so that Bong Joon-ho gets more chances to make movies for modern audiences that badly need them.