Movie Review: Parasite
By Matthew Huntley
November 9, 2019
“When there are no plans, nothing can go wrong.”
It isn’t until the final act of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” that we realize this has been Kim Ki-taek’s personal mantra for years. In a way, it’s also his defense mechanism, because it guards him from feeling like a failure or deluding himself into thinking he’s someone he’s not.
Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho) is a weary-looking man of about 50 whose main source of solace is his family, and like many like many men living in his scruffy neighborhood, which sits at the bottom of a hilly city in South Korea, Ki-taek has fallen on harsh economic times. He lives in a low-ceilinged, elbow-to-wall apartment with his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and their two twentysomething children—son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam).
As a family, the Kims are close, resourceful and band together to make ends meet, such as tapping into nearby Wi-Fi networks for free Internet access and performing odd jobs like folding mounds of pizza boxes for a meager paycheck they all share. Naturally, the Kims desire a higher standard of living, and so when Ki-woo’s college-educated friend, Min (Park Seo-joon), suggests Ki-woo take over his job as English tutor for the daughter of an affluent family, the other members of the Kim household think it could be an opportunity for all of them to reap the benefits of a rich lifestyle.
And so, one by one, the Kims scheme their way into the employ of the rich Park family, whose posh, modern mansion sits high above the city slums. Their serene home is everything the Kim’s is not, with 10-foot high ceilings; shiny, wooden floors; large, classy furniture; a fully stocked refrigerator and pantry; a heavily fortified garage; and a fully enclosed backyard with green grass and lush, perfectly maintained landscaping. Who wouldn’t want a piece of this luxury pie?
Shortly after Ki-woo impresses Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) with his tutelage skills and entices her and her business tycoon husband (Lee Sun-kyun) to hire him as the new English teacher for their daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), Ki-jung manages to get hired as the art teacher and child therapist to the Park’s rambunctious son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon). Ki-jung then plants a piece of incriminating evidence that gets the current chauffer fired, allowing Ki-taek to promptly fill the position, in spite of his notable stench. They then work on getting the longtime, dedicated housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) canned, and who should come along at just the right time but Chung-sook. Soon enough, the entire Kim clan, each assuming a fake identity, makes up the Park’s household staff and are quickly basking in the rich family’s amenities, going so far as to ransack their fridge, get drunk, and squat in their house when the Parks decide to go camping for the weekend.
Given this somewhat silly and lighthearted setup, why isn’t it until late in the film that we come to learn of Ki-taek’s solemn “no plan” policy? Because up until about the halfway mark, “Parasite” functions as sort of a whacky, slightly over-the-top dark comedy and edgy social commentary about the absurd and drastic differences between the rich and poor. It’s a funny, scathing, and often punchy look at the effects of an unfair and unbalanced economy that’s felt the world over, and even though the Kims act immorally in the way they get the Park’s current employees fired and exploit the family’s trust and possessions, they’re essentially likable and relatable people and we understand their motivations. They simply want to feel comfortable and worthy, and we can hardly blame them for that.
Joon-ho initially seems intent on telling an amusing, almost slapstick story, especially when the Kims have to act quickly when Mrs. Park calls Chung-sook from her car and instructs Chung-sook to start boiling water for udon, because the Parks have decided to cut their camping weekend short and they’ll be home in eight minutes! Suddenly, the Kim’s weekend of decadence and lazing about becomes a mad dash to save their jobs and protect their true identities.
You might expect the film to become more screwball at this point, but instead of staying a flippant course, Joon-ho and Han Jin-won’s ambitious screenplay takes an unexpected turn. The film remains punchy, but it now packs a different kind of punch, and what was a medium-hearted, sometimes vulgar comedy has suddenly become a violent, disturbing dramatic thriller, one that’s sad, downbeat, cynical and eventually tragic.
It’s hard to go into detail without spoiling the film’s many shocks and surprising developments, but what I can tell you is that no matter what filmic persona “Parasite” assumes, it keeps viewers in its grasp and glued to the screen, no matter how preposterous it may seem. If the first half made us laugh and perhaps even hope for these down-on-their-luck characters, the second makes us think, sympathize and either cover our eyes or rub our heads in despair.
I’m tempted to tell you more, but I really should leave it at that. Just know the film reveals a hidden layer, both figuratively and literally, when it introduces a new character with a heartrending yet perfectly credible history, and the story works to remind us, all the way up to its horrific and chaotic climax, that at the end of the day, it’s in our nature to protect our families first, no matter the cost to others or ourselves.
If this has got you curious about where “Parasite” goes, that’s the point, and I would advise you to go into it as cold as possible and simply allow it to enwrap you. Perhaps then you’ll see why the film has garnered so much praise and attention since its release, not least winning the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
While I agree “Parasite” is certainly worthy of its acclaim, I think it’s important to remember it’s not just the film’s provocative final act and somber ending that lend it its value, even though it will likely be these elements that leave the greatest impression on viewers. As powerful and effective as they are, I found its simple observations of its characters’ everyday behaviors, as well as the juxtaposition of a rich and poor lifestyle, even more engaging, because it’s these grounded, less theatrical aspects that inspire us to reflect on our own humanity and realize it’s our quotidian, mundane actions that define who we are, for they are our means of survival. Long before its story turns dark, gruesome and emotionally charged, “Parasite” reiterated in me that not everyone has the same opportunities and resources, and therefore we must be mindful, compassionate and respectful of others as we go about our dull, daily routines because they can be drastically different for everyone, right down to finding food and shelter.
It shouldn’t take violence and high emotions for us to see how imbalanced the world has become. As we persevere through an increasingly cynical and divisive world climate—politically, economically, socially—the lighter and more jocular first half of a film like “Parasite” should be enough to stir and impact us. We shouldn’t have to endure tragedy before making an effort to change a broken system.