Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-sik, Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin, Jo Yeo-jeong, Lee Jeong-eun, Lee Sun-kyun, Park Myeong-hoon, Jung Ji-so, Jung Hyun-jun, Park Seo-joon
As foreign language films go, not many manage to make it into the Western/Hollywood mainstream alongside English-language cinema. Hardy any at all, really. But now and again something comes along that manages to break down the language barrier and become something truly special (by Western reckoning). Parasite is apparently one of those special films. In fact, potentially the most special to date. It’s been winning numerous accolades and awards, starting with the Palme D’or at Cannes last year (being the first Korean film ever to win the award), right through to Best Foreign Language film at the Golden Globes (again, the first Korean film to do so), Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the SAG awards (the first non-English film ever to win in this category) and numerous nominations at the upcoming BAFTAs and Oscars (including Best Film/Picture at each, and being, yes, you’ve guessed it, the first Korean film to be nominated for any BAFTA award and Best Picture at the Oscars). It’s truly a mouthful to reel off all the praise that’s been bestowed upon Parasite already (making it a huge travesty that the UK and Ireland are the last to see its release in cinemas), but is Parasite really worth all this buzz, or is it a whole lot of hype over something that’s really nothing?
Down in a dingey basement somewhere in an impoverished area of a city lives the Kim family: father Ki-taek (Song), mother Chung-sook (Jang), son Ki-woo (Choi) and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). They live day to day trying to make money whichever way they can. One day, Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) asks Ki-woo to take over his job as an English teacher for the daughter of the wealthy Park family. Despite not having the proper credentials to do the job, Ki-woo accepts an interview and is ultimately hired. Through Ki-woo’s employment in the Park household, the Kim family hatch a plan that promises to pull them from their financial woes. That is, until a discovery threatens to turn the Kims’ plan on its head and leave them worse off than they were before meeting the Park family.
As you have probably already guessed from the five-star rating above, Parasite is indeed worthy of every ounce of praise and all the wins and nominations it has thus far received, let’s just get that fact out of the way now. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for this is that it has something for everyone; it can attract diverse audiences, from those just seeking something entertaining to others who are more serious about their cinema and like to look deeper. If that alone isn’t a sign of a successful movie, one that can break the barriers of mainstream and indie, then what possibly could be? Director Bong’s and co-writer Han’s story is, in Bong’s own words, “…a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains…”, emphasising the very real themes of the movie, the largest being that of the differences in social classes and how one treats or sees the other, neither inherently evil, but neither inherently good. There’s so much to pull apart and dissect from Parasite, for those who wish to do so, as with a bit of research it becomes quite clear how meticulous a filmmaker Bong is (his previous works are a testament to that). Every detail in Parasite, every word, movement and sound, is deliberate, and you’ll have a hell of a time interpreting everything Bong wants us to see, hear and feel. But on the flipside, you won’t be bombarded with metaphors if all you’re looking for is an enjoyable film, as it’s very much an entertaining tragicomedy that will easily hold your attention.
Song is a frequent collaborator of Bong’s, showing up in many of his films. Add on to that the fact that Song is a fantastic actor, then it was only fitting for him to feature in Bong’s most successful film to date. The character of Ki-taek goes through something of an inner transformation, and Song can play this quite subtley, disguising it with the ironic humour that’s often injected. Choi has also worked with Bong before, another actor whom the director knew he could trust to turn in an excellent performance as Ki-woo. He offers a similar balance as Song, with the tragedy and comedy played to great effect when needed. Jang as Chung-sook is every bit the matriarch one might expect of such a family: strong yet cunning, supportive yet selfish. She easily guides us through a love-hate relationship with Chung-sook. The standout of the Kim family, however, is Park So-dam as Ki-jeong. On the surface she comes across as just a very smart and unempathetic con-woman, but under the surface she could quite easily become a psychopath. The dryness with which Park plays Ki-jeong works perfectly for comedic effect but also says everything about who she is as a character. The multiple supporting roles are also all performed to an exceedingly high standard, with Jo’s Park Yeon-kyo, the mother of the Park family, an especially over-the-top and entertaining performance, capturing many of the stereotypes that come with being the wife of a wealthy man. As an ensemble, they come together perfectly to create something that would have easily fallen apart with just one bad performance, a feat that also shows Bong’s adeptness at choosing his main cast.
Parasite is a film that truly has it all, from sleek cinematography and expert direction, gorgeous production design and set builds, to a screenplay dripping with social commentary and excellent performances of unique characters. Personally, as an avid fan of South Korean cinema (and already a fan of Bong Joon-ho), not only does the recognition for Parasite and the cast and crew please me greatly, I also feel a sense of pride for the film industry in general, something that’s not been felt in a long time. Yes, there’s still a long way to go in creating opportunities for minorities and more diverse filmmakers and filmmaking, but this is such a huge step in the right direction (I’d have been happier if there were at least a couple of supporting actor/actress noms from this movie, but I suppose we can only ask for so much right now). I really hope this is the start of something amazing for other foreign language films in the future, films that unequivocally deserve more recognition than some English-language films that get multiple awards. Director Bong said it best at the Golden Globes: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Park Chan-wook was arguably South Korea’s most internationally recognised filmmaker, but I think it’s safe to say that Bong has quite surpassed Park now. Here’s to the success of more films from both esteemed filmmakers, and many more Korean- and non-English-speaking filmmakers across the world.