It’s a quiet night in the Park household. The Parks have gone away for their son’s birthday, leaving only their housekeeper, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), to tend to the house and their pets while they are away. On the surface, it’s a simple scenario for the wealthy upper class of South Korea. However, what is actually happening is an entirely different story.
Chung-sook has brought in her family, who have all been secretly working for the Parks under different names and occupations, to drink and live the life that they’ve never known. They’ve been poor all of their lives and have done whatever it took to get to where they are now. Lying, cheating, forging documents, and even framing others are all necessary steps to live off of the Parks. Chung-sook jokes that her father is a cockroach, but the metaphor couldn’t be more on the nose, made only more apparent by them hiding underneath furniture and beds when the lights come on and the Parks return home. They’re all acting like insects, scurrying around and surviving on the hospitality of their unwitting employers.
It’s moments like that that really show much Parasite is a truly smart satire that manages to hit far more often than it misses.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Release Date: October 11, 2019
The Kim family are the definition of poverty in South Korea. They sneak into places to eat, steal other people’s wifi, and barely have enough money to keep the power on in their tiny basement apartment. That all changes when Ki-taek (Choi Woo-shik) gets a job as a tutor for the wealthy Park family, who rename him as Kevin, and finds out that they pay extremely well and are gullible idiots. Kevin then starts to spin lies to get his sister (Park So-dam ), renamed Jessica by the Parks, hired as an art therapist, his father (Song Kang-ho), renamed Mr. Kim, hired as their driver, and their mom hired as their housekeeper. All the while, the Parks suspect nothing as the Kim family leech off of them.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Parasite addresses the idea of class warfare, because the story isn’t interested about that concept as Western movies are, but it is interested in class mobility. From the onset, Kevin wants to become wealthy and live a better life as an adult than as a child. He gets recommended for the tutor job by his friend and swears that he’s going to make his lie a reality one day. It’s an honorable thought, though one that slowly changes as the movie goes on.
At face value, I like the Kim family. Each member of the family doubles between being subservient and acquiescing to the Parks while casually manipulating them to their own amusement. Seeing the Parks fall for such pathetic lies, like how Mr. Kim creates an insane story about how one of their servants has tuberculous, is just inherently funny and I was cracking a smile all throughout.
In truth, Parasite can actually be a very funny movie. I wouldn’t say you’ll split your side watching it, but there’s just something inherently funny about watching a group of impoverished workers pull one over on the upper class. It’s almost Shakespearean at times, with members of the Kim family filling in for classic fool roles of Feste or the policemen from Much Ado About Nothing, with Mr. Kim serving as the Dogberry of the group. The dynamic rarely shifts between the Parks and the Kims, allowing me to enjoy these characters for most of the runtime. Even if the Kim family are considered “the bad guys,” there’s almost a Robin Hood-esque quality to them that’s hard not to endear yourself towards.
Just because the characters relationships stay the same doesn’t mean the tone does. While the first half of the movie is decidedly more comedic, the second half takes a more serious approach to the concept of class mobility. At times the message can be bleak, with an ending and moral that shows the futility of the Kim’s plan, but it’s an ending the can make you think. Granted, I was concerned that the movie was going to veer into a more horror-oriented direction al la Get Out or Us, both of which share similar ideas with Parasite, but thankfully it never did.
However, that tone shift is probably my biggest concern with the movie. The message that Parasite was trying to deliver in its first half was clear and enjoyable, while the added complexity of the second half detracted from my enjoyment at times. Parasite was always at its best pointing out the stupidity of the rich and the cleverness of the poor, but once the movie started to add moral complexities I became disengaged. Never to the point where I didn’t like what I was watching, but it had me long for those earlier scenes with clever writing and commentary. It became a bit too on the nose for my liking.
I think that Parasite would make an excellent companion piece to 2016’s The Handmaiden, which also deals with similar ideas and themes. While that movie ended on a more hopefully note, Parasite’s ending feels more somber and morose by comparison. Both are incredibly strong movies, but I do think that The Handmaiden is consistently a better movie. Granted, it doesn’t reach the highs that Parasite does, with the standout scene of the movie being the aforementioned one where the Park family are on vacation, creating an ultra-tense comedy of errors that had me visibly covering my mouth from nervousness.
There is no denying that Bong Joon-ho is a talented director, with nearly all of his movies being critical darlings. And make no mistake, there’s a lot to like about Parasite. The writing is spot on, the cast are all fantastic, and the comedy is ridiculous yet brilliant simultaneously. It’s just hard for me to reconcile the tone shift that comes towards the end of the movie. It’s done naturally and makes logical sense, but I feel like Parasite lost a bit of its spark as it went from being subtle with its message to being more overt in its execution.