Marcel Duchamp once told a friend he had made parasitism into a fine art. Had the enigmatic artist explained his methods, he might have said: “Never complain, never argue, and don’t get greedy.”
The working class family in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite could write their own textbook on the subject, although they’d recommend a more aggressive approach. This black comedy about class and privilege secured Bong the 2019 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and earlier this month, the grand prize at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s a movie that takes a comic scenario and pushes it to extremes – extremity being a speciality of the Korean cinema.
One might automatically assume that a feature called Parasite would be a horror flick, but Bong likes to reassure viewers this is “a family film”. It’s the story of two families from opposite poles of the social spectrum. Ki-taek, his wife and kids, are impoverished grifters living in a sordid basement flat at the bottom end of town. The Park family are members of a wealthy upper class who live in a designer home in a high-end suburb. In a cruel social experiment Bong brings these two groups together with devastating results.
When we meet Ki-taek (the great character actor, Song Kang-ho), he and his family are all out of work and looking for some desperate expedient to bring in a few won. His wife, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) has grown accustomed to making a little go a long way. His daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), both in their early 20s, are smart and attractive, but apparently unemployable.
Their luck changes when a friend of Ki-woo’s asks him to take over his job tutoring the teenage daughter of a rich family, the Parks. Ki-woo is quick to seize the chance, and analyses his new employers. Mrs Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) lives in a bubble of wealth and seems completely unworldly, while Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyun) spends most of his time at the office. Their young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) is brash and spoiled, while the daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ziso) is at just the right age to have her emotions exploited.
Having secured his own position Ki-woo, sets about getting a job for his sister as art tutor to Da-song. The siblings then find ways to eliminate the current employees and install their parents as replacements. The trick is that each has to pretend to be completely unrelated to the other. The scam proceeds brilliantly, with the only hiccup coming from Da-song who announces that the four new helpers all have the same smell.
That smell is the lingering odour of the basement flat to which all four return at the end of every day, but we understand it’s really the smell of poverty – which is abhorrent to the refined nostrils of the Parks. This delicacy about smell will play a crucial role in the scenes that bring the story to a conclusion but in the meantime Ki-taek’s family bask in their success and begin to feel at home in the Parks’ mansion.
Their true distance from their employers is shown by a scene in which they gather in the house while the owners are on holiday, get drunk and make a terrible mess. Squalor is embedded in their very being even though they dream of wealth and sophistication.
For the Parks, the lower classes may as well be Martians so little do they know about them. A torrential downpour that floods Ki-taek’s neighbourhood, leaving everyone up to their neck in sewage, is merely a refreshing shower to Mrs Park, as seen from her home on the hill.
Ultimately no-one escapes Bong’s savage satire. As representatives of the moneyed classes the Parks are utterly self-centred, obsessed with trifles but indifferent to the world around them. They see the masses – if they see them at all – as an error of taste.
As for Ki-taek’s clan they are not descendents of that species the Victorian era dubbed “the deserving poor”. Avaricious, callous and calculating, they are just as self-centred as the Parks. The more they grab, the greater their sense of entitlement. They may be products of an unjust system but they are morally repugnant.
Bong diffuses the danger of caricature by allowing moments when characters are forced to confront problems that don’t fit into their worldviews. While Ki-taek’s family toast their good fortune, catastrophe lies just around the corner. For the Parks, the fairy-tale of their lives proves too good to be true. We can sympathise with both groups while never losing sight of their failings. Their gloating may be repellent, but humiliation is painful to watch.
It would be a mistake to see Parasite as simply a film about South Korea. Although many of the details are peculiarly Korean the international success of the movie testfies to its broader resonance in a world flooded with money, where the growing gulf between rich and poor is creating a new kind of feudalism. In another age the Parks would have been the nobility and Ki-taek’s family a bunch of sneaky peasants. The difference is that the new urban poor are also the offspring of a high tech, consumer society that prompts them to dream about all the luxuries they’ll never be able to afford. The potential for disaster lies in that gap between dreams and reality.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Written by Bong Joon-ho & Han Jin-Won
Starring Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-sik, Jang Hye-jin, Park, So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Jo Yeo-jeong, Jung Hyeon-jun, Lee Jeong-eun
South Korea, rated MA 15+, 132 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 29 June, 2019