Bong Joonho, “Parasite / Gisaengchung” (2019)
A stinging attack on capitalism in South Korean society and its effects on people’s thinking and actions, “Parasite” pits two families, both of which have common Korean surnames, from two polar opposite sides of the socioeconomic spectrum in a bleak black comedy full of twists and extreme surprises. The film’s tone is not always even, and slapstick comedy easily and quickly slips into a dark and depressive meditation on the effects of poverty and preying on others’ naivety and gullibility. Kim Kitaek (Song Kangho, a regular in Bong’s films), an ex-driver, heads a family of grifters living like rats in a basement unit at the tail-end of Skid Row in a slum neighbourhood somewhere in Seoul or Busan and trying to make ends meet by folding and recycling pizza boxes for a delivery business. One day, Kitaek’s son Kiwoo (Choi Wooshik) meets up with an old college friend who is currently employed as an English-language tutor by a rich family for their teenage daughter; the friend is about to go overseas and wants to recommend Kiwoo to replace him. Armed with documents forged by his sister Kijeong (Park Sodam), Kiwoo goes to the family’s mansion where he is interviewed by Mrs Park (Yo Yeojeong) and meets the daughter Dahye; he gets the job after giving Dahye a lesson while Mrs Park watches. Noticing that Mrs Park’s son has artwork pinned up on the lounge-room wall, Kiwoo recommends that a “friend” of his, Jessica, might be available to teach the son, Dasong, art. Mrs Park is amenable to the suggestion and soon Jessica – in reality, Kijeong herself – is giving art therapy to Dasong.
Kijeong soon contrives to get dad Kitaek a job as the Parks’ chauffeur. No sooner does Kitaek get the job driving Mr Park (Lee Sunkyun) than he and his adult children manage to throw out the Parks’ housekeeper Moongwang (Lee Jeungeun) to be replaced by Kitaek’s wife Choongsook (Jang Hyejin). Thus the entire Kim family is comfortably ensconced in the Parks’ luxurious Modernist mansion and the four celebrate with a loud drunken party at the Parks’ expense while the Parks go on a weekend camping trip – at least until Moongwang turns up unexpectedly to attend to a secret she has kept hidden in the mansion’s basement for a number of years and discovers the truth about the Kims and their ruse to get rid of her and the chauffeur.
After that surprise twist in the film’s plot, the narrative lurches from comedy to horror, back and forth, as the Kims fight Moongwang and the unexpected house-guest husband Moongwang has kept in the basement who is on the run from loan-shark creditors. The threat that Moongwang and her husband pose to the Kims’ secret culminates spectacularly and bloodily during an extravagant birthday party the Parks throw for Dasong. The body count is high, the lives of three families are torn asunder and the film closes on a sad, wistful and very bleak note.
An otherwise silly story is made grave as well as comic by ambiguous characterisation: the Kim family, though very much needy and in desperate economic straits, is also portrayed as greedy and cruel in its own way (though Kitaek does also have some compassion for Moongwang and her husband, whose lives are not all that different from the Kim family’s own difficulties); and the Park family, while privileged and spoilt, is generous in its own way. The children appear more intelligent than their ditzy mother. Mr Park comes across as an overgrown selfish adolescent, concerned more about Kitaek being able to take corners at speed in a way that doesn’t spill his (Park’s, that is) coffee.
The true villain of the piece is the capitalist society in which the Kims and Moongwang and her husband are forced to scrabble for existence like rats literally living underground while families like the Parks, whose fortunes are made off the backs of people like the Kims, splash their money on expensive (but cold and empty) luxury homes and frivolous pursuits. Who are the real parasites here? As in many of Bong’s films – “Mother” comes to mind here – characters are frequently driven by their situations and the social environment they are born into and grow up in to commit acts that are irreversible and have dramatic life-changing consequences and which they come to regret.
Once again Song Kangho is in a class of his own playing a comic character who is not always too bright but is capable of deep insight into his and his family’s condition; the rest of the cast do capable work but are always in his shadow. The Parks’ mansion is a significant character in its own right and mirrors the two-faced condition of capitalist society: it shows off plenty of beautiful (and superficial) surface gleam and glamour but hides a sinister subterranean secret as any self-respecting house of horror should.
For all its bonkers plotting and characterisation, all working out perfectly and logically plot-wise, the film becomes despairing when Kiwoo capitulates to the demands of South Korean society and Korean tradition in order to save what remains of his family after they have struggled through their storm and stress. Viewers are likely to feel short-changed by this treatment of the Kims. What happens to the Parks after they flee the mansion remains unknown.