Film Review | Parasite: Trading places, Korean style

Making history as the first international film to take home Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is both a slick, suspenseful thriller and a scathing dissection of social inequality

Every once in a while, a film shows up at the multiplexes with such a whiff of perfection that one wonders how it even came together with such effortless aplomb that one begins to wonder how it even managed to materialise in this flawed world with its impressive integrity intact.

I would hazard to say that Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite – winner, among many other accolades of this year’s Best Picture Academy Award – is just one such production. Skewering the South Korean class divide in a way that still feels universal to anyone toiling under the unofficial diktat of late capitalism, Ho’s follow-up to the Netflix-released environmentalist romp Okja carries over a lot of that film’s anger and playfulness, but transmutes them into a more poignant and efficient beast altogether.

The Kim family exists at the lowest ebb of society. Literally confined to an underground hovel subject to regular gusts of pollution and grime, they eke out a meagre existence folding pizza boxes and doing other menial jobs, which they score depending on how good the stolen WiFi they pick up from neighbours is that day. When an opportunity to ingratiate themselves into the lives of the affluent Park family presents itself, they take to it with sneaky, diabolical relish. Gaining an entry point into their world when the son, Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), scores a job as an English tutor to the Park family daughter, Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the patriarch, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is soon brought in as the personal driver to his far richer counterpart, the video game mogul Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun).

When both Kim mother Park Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and daughter Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam) are brought in – as ever, through a deceptive game of good word of mouth, with Park family remaining completely in the dark about the family relationship between their new helpers – the stage appears to be set for a total professional takeover, with the Kim’s family fortunes finally set to change after their collective wages amass handsomely. But in securing a place for Park Chung-sook, they have had to unseat the Park’s long-standing and ever-loyal housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun). And when she comes knocking after being left out in the cold, she arrives with a bombshell of info that may turn out deadly for all concerned.

Scripted and edited with a finesse that cannot be faked, Parasite ensures its success by building a perfect ticking bomb of suspense, helped along by the thematic clarity of its vision. In lesser hands, one could easily have accused Ho of being far too aggressively didactic in his messaging, but the film is actually too naughty to allow that to happen. There’s a trickster energy at play all throughout the serpentine movement’s of the film’s plot-work, and there’s no whiff of sentimentality or contrived retribution at play in the Kim family’s manipulative manoeuverings. Though certainly privileged to the point of unwitting callousness -- as revealed in a disturbingly hilarious love scene between the Park couple at around the film’s midpoint -- they are otherwise a decent, if somewhat gullible, bunch.

Both families are pitched as each other’s opposites by a system that favours one lifestyle over the other, and it is when the workings of this very system are pushed to it outer limits that the trouble truly starts.

In the genre-shifting fashion that is in line with both some of the most prominent examples of Korean cinema in general and Ho’s work in particular, Parasite’s final act brings things to a twisty, explosive logical conclusion that is spectacular as it is horrifying.

A mesmerising, unforgettable tightrope walk.

The verdict

Having secured a name for himself as a dependably brilliant filmmaker across various genres, Korean maestro Bong Joon Ho comes to full bloom with Parasite, a goldmine of horror, comedy and social satire that is as sleek as it is intricate. Very rarely has a Best Picture Oscar felt more deserving, even if such institutional accolades feel banal in light of such an incisive piece of cinema.