South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“Okja”) says that he always tries to overturn viewer expectations and hopes that his latest film succeeds in this way. Palme d’Or winner at the 2019 Cannes Film festival, Bong’s Parasite (Gisaengchung) does indeed thwart expectations, but the question is — to what end? Defying any strict genre classification, the film is a conglomeration of comedy, drama, satire, crime, horror, and anything else you can throw into the mix. Bong sees the film as a statement about the “ranks and classes” inherent in capitalism that are invisible to the eye, and says that the film “depicts the inevitable cracks that appear when two classes brush up against each other in today’s increasingly polarized society.” Unfortunately, the characterizations are filled with so many stereotypes that the lack of any realistic human dimension leaves Bong’s statement without much impact.
The film looks at class differences between two families — one well-to-do, and the other n’eer do well. For the Kim family, life is a struggle. They live in a cramped bug-infested basement apartment without many amenities except for a toilet built on kind of a shelf. The father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, “Snowpiercer”) has failed in business and has accumulated many debts. His son and daughter Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik, “Train to Busan”) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam, “Cinderella and Four Knights” TV series) have repeatedly failed college entrance exams. The mother Chung-sook (Hyae-jin Jang, “Adulthood”) along with the two children fold boxes for a delivery company, but cannot even get that right. Not to worry, they leave their windows open when the fumigators come around to get some free extermination and steal free Wi-Fi from the next door coffee shop.
On the other hand, the nouveau riche Park family has all the advantages. Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun, “Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage”) is the CEO of a high-tech company and the family lives in a spacious, modernistic home protected by sturdy concrete walls. He has an attractive somewhat fragile wife Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong, “The Target”), a teenage daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so, “The Tiger”), and a hyper-active young son Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun). Being wealthy and somewhat elitist in their attitude, for Bong, they are ideally suited to be torn apart by ruthless grifters. With the aid of a friend, Ki-woo is hired to be a private tutor for Da-hye. Of course, he has to forge university documents to convince the trusting Mrs. Park of his competence. With that conquest out of the way, the cunning Ki-woo concocts a scheme to secure jobs in the Park household for his entire family.
Convinced that their young son is a budding Picasso, Mrs. Park hires Ki-jung as an art teacher, then falls for invented stories impugning the character of their driver and housekeeper to provide some more employment opportunities for the Kims, this time for the deadbeat dad Ki-taek and his wife Chung-sook. Bong said that “Sometimes with the characters in my films, I look at them cynically, but most of the time I have a lot of compassion for the characters, even with the villains.” This compassion, however, does not seem to extend to the loyal, hardworking household workers, their work scammed out of existence. Without going into detail, the whole escapade backfires in a twist that is over-the-top unsettling even though utterly implausible.
Worthy of a Mack Sennett comedy, a sweet family drama turns into a tumultuous melange of hidden chambers, revenge, bloody violence, a torrential rainstorm, people hiding under beds, and any other mayhem that may come to mind. To be clear, Parasite can be very funny and some of the satire is sharp-edged, yet it is hardly, as one critic described it, “a masterful dissection of social inequality.” When asked what he wanted viewers to get out of the film, Bong said, “I just hope that it gives audiences a lot to think about. It is in parts funny, frightening, and sad, and if it makes viewers feel like sharing a drink and talking over all the ideas they had while watching it, I’ll wish for nothing more.” Enjoy the drink. In a little while, you may have trouble remembering what the film was about.
Parasite screened at the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival.