Bong Joon Ho’s masterwork requires your attention
As we approach the 2020 Oscars, one film seems to be gathering not just momentum, but reverence and affection from film circles. Rightly so. Parasite is a masterwork from Korean writer/director Bong Joon Ho, garnering six Oscar nominations, including Best Foreign Film, Best Director, and the first ever Best Picture nomination for a film from Korea. Deserving of every plaudit laid at its feed, and more, Parasite is a timely and potent work, and undoubtedly one of the best films of 2019, whatever happens come Oscars night. If you missed out, you can correct that egregious mistake with its arrival on home video.
In PARASITE, meet the Park family, the picture of aspirational wealth and the Kim family, rich in street smarts but not much else. Be it chance or fate, these two houses are brought together and the Kim’s sense a golden opportunity. Masterminded by college-aged Ki-woo, the Kim children expediently install themselves as tutor and art therapist to the Parks. Soon, a symbiotic relationship forms between the two families. The Kims provide “indispensable” luxury services while the Parks obliviously bankroll their entire household. When a parasitic interloper threatens the Kims’ newfound comfort, a savage, underhanded battle for dominance breaks out, threatening to destroy the fragile ecosystem between the Kims and the Parks.
Parasite: an organism that lives in or on an organism of another species (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the other’s expense.
A title, and Bong’s previous oeuvre (The Host, Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer) puts you in mind that you’re sitting down to a horror film; and while some of those elements gradually emerge, Parasite is more of a tragic comedy of manners than anything else. Bong casts off some of the more genre fare that bled into his previous films for something more grounded, reflecting his sobering condemnation of societal inequality and look at class structure as he contrasts and collides two families representing the haves and the have-nots of Korean society.
The Kim family, father Ki-taek (Song Kang-Ho), mother Chung-soon (Chang Hyae-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), are smart, savvy, and proud of their hustle, both in terms of graft and outwitting (or out-talking) those around them. A friend of Ki-woo’s offers him an chance to take over his appointment as a private tutor to the daughter of the wealthy Park family. Once inside, he sees an opportunity, with father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), mother Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), daughter Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so), and Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun); each have certain needs and vulnerabilities that can be exploited. They ingratiate themselves into the Park family household, each under a different guise, and just as they start to revel in the good life they leech for themselves, the usurped former housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) returns to unsettle their schemes, introducing another rung of hardship and conflict on this social ladder.
What’s a more relatable parasitic act of the modern age than stealing wi-fi? An exquisitely deployed opening scene connects you to the Kim family and their collective efforts to better their lot in life. Sympathy and admiration for them grows as the film unfolds. Working multiple jobs, squeezing value and opportunity out of their everyday lives, suffering physical and emotional hardship, it’s a reality that will strike a chord with many today where hard work doesn’t necessarily mean fair compensation. But Parasite is rooted in the gray; some of their achievements come at the expense of others, pushing themselves up while treading on those in their way. They are not totally vilified for their actions, but it does come back to haunt them. While seemingly decent people, and victims in their own right, the Parks are guilty of their own trespasses showing a lack of awareness that often comes with privilege. This scam is going on right under their noses and they fail to see it, but more-so in their day to day lives they fail to comprehend the social and economic injustices that lift them up and push others down. Money solves all problems. Time and other people’s lives and needs are of little import. Cultural iconography is reduced to a child’s plaything, and even humble ramen must be elevated by the addition of sirloin steak. Some contempt for the poor is more obvious than others, but their ignorance of the less affluent gives their lives as much comfort as their fine home. It’s the nuances and depth to all the characters and their respective factions that make the dynamics between them so fascinating.
Parasite is an irresistible work, one that feels like the culmination of what Bong Joon Ho has been building to over the years. A sharp screenplay from Bong (penned with Han Jin Won) entertains, surprises, and shocks, given life by one of the year’s most electric ensembles. Visually the film is a knockout, showcasing the fine eye of cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo with a series of sets and locations that are as well considered and important as the characters themselves in terms of narrative. Every aspect of the film is impeccably paced and structured, whether in terms of the production design and set building, or even the blocking of characters to show the shifting dynamics of power as the film progresses. Ki-taek’s chauffeur drives are perfect examples of this. It all feeds into the story, building remarkable levels of tension and layers of craft and commentary. Parasite holds up a mirror to Korean culture, but goes way beyond that in reflecting issues of financial and social inequality that affect a swath of the population worldwide. The film has planted a flag for Korea and foreign film in general, and also brought something of a reckoning to Hollywood and the “very local” Academy Awards. The buzz amongst the crowd at the SAG Awards when the cast picked up the best ensemble award was truly heart warming and well deserved. One only hopes this recognition translates into the acclaim it deserves and in doing so, opens up a greater audience to Bong’s work and the work of other overseas filmmakers.
The Blu-ray offers the opportunity to revel in the marvelous production design and precision of Bong’s work. Detail is very impressive in every aspect, from household furniture and fabrics, to the costumes and actors themselves. The bright, polished upstairs and the dim and grim downstairs are both well rendered with natural colors that still pop.
Extra features include a digital copy of the film, two trailers, and disappointingly only one additional feature but it’s a rather good one, taken from the Q&A at the 2019 Fantastic Fest. As someone in the audience at that screening, the warmth and wit of Bong was on show, as he has demonstrated throughout the whirlwind promotional tour over the past few months. But considering the story, the talent involved, and the intricacies of the production itself, it’s disappointing more supporting material isn’t included.
The Bottom Line
If you missed out, this is your chance to correct your major cinematic oversight of 2019, and get in on the buzz building toward this years Oscars. A parable that is delicious, devilish, and devastating in equal measure. Meticulously crafted, with a stellar ensemble driven by a masterful director, Parasite is a distillation of why foreign film should be not just taken seriously, but embraced by all. Vault over that inch high barrier and watch Parasite.
Parasite is available on Blu-ray NOW