Ethics. When money is involved, ethics and our relationship with morality will always influence how money impacts the world. That’s what is at the heart of Boon Joon-ho’s 7th directorial feature, Parasite. A film baked into the intricacies of Korean culture, but representing a universal story that all audiences can follow, Parasite is Joon-ho’s best flick since Memories of Murder (2003) and may end up being remembered as the filmmaker’s magnum opus.
However, despite the adulation among those who’ve seen it, this is a film that many western audiences may refuse to see because they don’t want to watch subtitles. If you love smart and intense thrillers, don’t be one of those people! Watching subtitles isn’t one of my favorite things either, but watching this film is different – the characters are so well written and understood that the dialogue is a blast to follow, not a detriment. If there is one foreign film you see all year, it should be this.
The film centers on the Kim family, a poor unit living in an odor filled basement apartment. The patriarch is Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), the mother is Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and they live with their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). We’re introduced to them desperately trying to find Wi-Fi hotspots, folding pizza cartons for petty cash, and scheming to get free fumigations. But their luck might change when Ki-woo’s friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), prepares to leave to study overseas. Before leaving, Min-hyuk offers Ki-woo a job as the English tutor for the teenaged daughter of a rich family, replacing Min-hyuk in that role.
Ki-woo gladly accepts and is taken aback by the outstanding living environment enjoyed by the wealthy Park family. Not only is Ki-woo able to bring in extra income to his family, but the Park’s warm welcoming gives him the idea for a much more complex scheme. To speak any further would ruin the fun, and for all the film’s themes on class and wealth, Joon-ho infuses this tale with a delirious sense of fun that must be experienced.
A big reason why this film has been so universally praised is it’s command on tone and pacing. You’re prepared for an intense thriller, but Parasite catches viewers off guard with a lighter tone early. Gradually, the characters’ flaws and insecurities come under scrutiny while the stakes get higher; eventually leading to a more sinister and totally unexpected turn.
Hefty praise has been hailed at the remarkable directing and superb writing, but these are also some of the best performances of the year. In many ways, Park So-dam gives the most memorable performance as the Kim family’s jaded daughter. She’s clearly the brains of the household and knows it, but So-dam provides the character with a believable wit and sarcastic undertone that makes her as equally charming as she is obnoxious. Meanwhile, Song Kang-ho makes Ki-taek a sympathetic man, one who suspects that he’s a failure and an embarrassment to his children. He’s not as intelligent or as diligent as his kids, and it becomes apparent whenever he interacts with higher class people.
He’s representative of the self-consciousness many of the audience may feel in their own lives, jobs, and family dynamics. While Ki-jeong represents the untapped potential of a younger generation who have all the tools, but appear disillusioned with an unfair system. Early on, her brother asks her why she hasn’t parlayed her computer skills into university enrollment. She tells him to shut up, and we never get an answer to the question, but we suspect that there is possibly a financial obstacle preventing this for happening. This does not make the Kim family virtuous people in any way, as the film will demonstrate, but does call into question whether our financial structures give everyone the appropriate opportunities.
But while those characters help to inform many of the film’s themes, one underrated aspect of the film is Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong). Cho is wonderfully over the top, acting appropriately oblivious to each major plot point with a naive earnestness. This is likely due to the ease of Mrs. Park’s comfortable lifestyle, disabling her social intelligence while trust is a manipulated currency for the Kim family. But the dichotomy is a two edged sword, as the film reveals itself as a story of how the rich and poor can alternate positions of victim and perpetrators, even if the position of power never budges. It’s a cruel critique of society, where true “good guys” and “bad guys” are absent, in it’s place a community of people who are incentivized to exploit others.
Perhaps that’s the heart of the entire story – in order to achieve the financial stability you aspire to, it will often come at someone’s literal or figurative expense. Parasite is a brilliant discovery, one of the year’s best which will prove to be rewatchable for years to come. Not just because it is an arresting, endlessly entertaining black-comedy filled with terrific characters. It will continue to be a well-praised piece of cinema because it shows an ugly, truthful side of the world and doesn’t relent on the audacity. No one exists in a vacuum; our actions affect each other, in varying degrees. Our level of empathy, or lack thereof, will determine what those actions will be.