Director Bong Joon-ho
Bong Joon-ho at Cannes winning the Palme d'Or prize
PARASITE (Gisaengchung) B+
South Korea (132 mi) 2019 ‘Scope d: Bong Joon-ho
Following last year’s festival circuit success of Hirokazu Koreeda’s heavily acclaimed Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku) (2018) and Lee Chang-dong’s underrated 2018 Top Ten List #8 Burning (Beoning), they apparently paved the way for Bong Joon-ho’s new film receiving plenty of accolades after winning the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at Cannes (by unanimous decision), the first South Korean film to earn that distinction, earning a whopping $70 million dollars in South Korea before its American release, devising a satiric black comedy that reveals a devastating chasm between rich and poor. What starts out as a cleverly ingenious scam from an impoverished family to fake their way, one by one, into working for a filthy rich family without them ever realizing they are related, eventually goes awry, veering into unconventional Hollywood horror, becoming so over the top that the film deflects from the exquisitely dramatic build-up of character development to superbly constructed scenes of mayhem, becoming a perversely well-made free-for-all of wretched malaise, given a kind of apocalyptic thriller twist where the world is turned on its end, creating boldly audacious mood shifts not seen since Marin Ade’s 2017 Top Ten List #2 Toni Erdmann, allowing all the pulp fiction tension to dissipate, leaving audiences quietly dazed afterwards. This is a more playful version of Jean Genet’s One Act play The Maids, loosely based upon the infamous Papin sisters, expanded into a sharply written comic satire on class divisions and the principles of social order in Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (1995), a domestic thriller standing somewhere between comedy and horror. While Chabrol offers a more classically eloquent portrait of scathing bourgeois satire, like Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, where the lower class servants sarcastically make fun of the idyll rich, Bong’s film has a few more rough edges, where the troublesome family at the root of an otherwise loving family drama overindulges their reach, biting off more than they can chew, leading to unexpected circumstances beyond their control, becoming a morality play, an exasperated comedy gone awry, leading to tragic results. The Kim family in question is headed by the father, Song Kang-ho as Kim Ki-taek, an unemployed chauffeur. Song is a recognizable, high-profile South Korean actor who has worked previously with Bong as the bungling detective in Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok) (2003) and the slow-witted father in THE HOST (2006), but also Lee Chang-dong as the quirky mechanic in Secret Sunshine (2007) and Park Chan-wook in various films, while getting his start with Hong Sang-soo. His no-nonsense wife, a former hammer-throw champion from the medal on the wall, is Jang Hye-jin as Chung-sook, while Choi Woo-shik is the older brother Ki-woo, and Park So-dam is the younger sister Ki-jung, both failing their college entrance exams. The Kim family lives in a cramped basement folding pizza boxes to earn a living, where we get an idea what they’re about when we discover they’re stealing the upstair neighbor’s Wi-Fi connection, initially befuddled when the neighbor changes their password, finding an active signal in an elevated section of the far corner of the room.
This family is not afraid to use crude language to comic effect, while they’re most proud of Ki-jung’s unique gift of forgery where she’s able to produce professional looking documents, giving them fake credentials they’ve never actually achieved. This comes in handy when a friend who’s leaving to study in America recommends Ki-woo for a job teaching English as a personal tutor for a teenage daughter of a wealthy Park family. Realizing they have an artistically inclined young son that could use some art therapy, he recommends a noted specialist that just happens to be his sister. Weaseling their way into the Park family was easy, but their working techniques are masterful, playing on the elitist ambitions of the rich, becoming sympathetic figures while literally hoodwinking this family for needed cash. What’s amazing about the wealthy family is the grandiosity of their home, a sleek and modern look designed by an architect, given the appearance of a Glass House with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the luscious greenery of their back lawn, literally an oasis, or an idyllic paradise on earth. The all-knowing housekeeper, Lee Jung-eun as Gook Moon-gwang, is a holdover from when the original architect lived there, knowing every crack and crevice in the home. The family’s isolation and quirky behavior, however, may remind viewers of Yorgos Lanthimos, a filmmaker whose characters defy comprehension, inventing surrealist imagery to accompany their outrageous behavior. While the boring Park parents are incredibly gullible, so easy to manipulate, they generate little sympathy, as they have it all, apparently, but don’t seem to deserve it, as they simply don’t have the capacity to empathize. Resorting to deviously underhanded methods, the Kim family entraps both the family driver and the housekeeper, causing both to be fired, their jobs filled by casual acquaintances, recommended professionals they just happen to know, bringing in expert driver Kim as the chauffeur and their suddenly transformed mother with her newly coiffed hair as the housekeeper, so everyone has a foot in the door carrying out their mission with military precision. While they gush over their apparent success, the kid figures them out (though no one believes him), as each hired employee brings with them a peculiar smell that is not particularly agreeable, something akin to a poor man’s smell that’s more evocative of their own filthy subterranean quarters that can never be scrubbed clean, sending them scampering to use different deodorants and shampoos in an attempt to mask the odor. But it’s a prevailing theme that exists throughout the film, a sharp critique of capitalism, with the rich and poor deviously dependent on the other, where humiliation is a bought and sold commodity that comes at a price, slowly taking its toll over time, with the camera cleverly moving back and forth between the two homes that couldn’t be more strikingly different, as if from two separate and starkly unequal worlds, a return to Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW (1963) disparity, becoming a mind-bending yet playful journey through various genre films, with the director in full display of his myriad of talents.
The turning point occurs when the Park family decides to take their son camping, allowing the Kim’s to bask in the glory of this immaculate estate, raiding the icebox and liquor cabinet, picnicking on the lawn as we watch Chung-sook do a spectacular hammer throw before having a gloried Buñuelian feast mimicking the infamous “Last Supper” sequence in VIRIDIANA (1961) on the premises, imagining themselves as the permanent occupants, growing deliriously drunk and deluded as their accumulated trash and dirty dishes start piling up, leaving a mess everywhere you look while they’re entranced by watching the passing storm out the window, hypnotically mesmerized until the doorbell rings, immediately sending them into panic mode. It turns out to be Moon-gwang, the dispelled housekeeper pleading in a raging downpour that she left something behind in the basement, asking to come inside. While the rest of the family hides, Moon-gwang disappears into the blackness of the basement, which turns out to be a secret bunker, like an air-raid shelter, built in the event of an attack from North Korea with its own living quarters inside, which is where her husband, Park Myung-hoon as Geun-sae, has been hiding for years to evade ravenous loan sharks. In one of the more deranged moments, he does an outrageously demented impersonation of his wife as a North Korean news announcer. Incredulous at the discovery, the rest of the family awkwardly falls down the stairs in utter astonishment, with Moon-gwang cleverly capturing their appearance on her phone, threatening to expose the entire family, turning the tables, gaining the upper hand, basically ordering them to do whatever she pleases, suggesting even amongst the poor there’s always a power dynamic, a Darwinian survival of the fittest, all of which quickly changes when the Park family calls to announce their arrival in 8-minutes, driven away from their campsite by the storm. Pandemonium sets in, where hilarity quickly turns to tragedy, including an all-out assault for control of their phone, playing nasty, as unexpected consequences ensue while they’re racing against time to clean up their mess. The fear of being exposed drives them into temporary insanity, completely altering the look of the film, as the frenzied battle sets the stage for new territory, where the hyper-exaggerated delirium recalls Kim Ki-Young’s iconic Korean B-movie masterpiece THE HOUSEMAID (1960), where a supposedly stable household is upended by twisted transgressions that for the most part remain under the surface, carefully balancing tension and claustrophobia until all hell breaks loose, again coinciding with a mammoth storm of epic POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) proportions, literally flooding the lower depths of the Kim neighborhood, drowning out any safe space. Mixing the absurdity of surrealism with graphic South Korean horror, Bong stages an infamous birthday party sequence for the young Park child that quickly goes wildly off the rails in a circus-like spectacle gone terribly wrong, creating an utterly devastating catastrophe of legendary status. While the finale meanders a bit before finally coming to a quietly somber closing, it never achieves the moral complexity of serious contemplation, but it does provide the razzle dazzle of provocation, becoming a socially conscious parable for our times.