Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 2, 2020)
2019’s Parasite achieved at least one notable milestone: it became the first South Korean film to earn an Oscar nomination as Best Picture. A veritable shoo-in for the Best International Feature award, I doubt it’ll win Best Picture, but it stands a chance.
Parasite also brings us easily the highest-grossing South Korean film ever in the US. As I write, it’s made $33 million in America, a total that seems low compared to the usual blockbusters, but it sounds pretty awesome for an Asian movie about class conflicts.
The Kim family finds themselves stuck in poverty, with little apparent room for upward mobility. Their horizons appear to shift when 20-something son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) gets a job as English tutor to wealthy teen Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso).
As Ki-woo ingratiates himself with the Park family, the Kims sense opportunity. They all manage to land jobs with the Parks, though they never reveal that they’re related to each other. As the Kims struggle to maintain this charade, they encounter various complications.
While writer/director Bong Joon-Ho started his film career in his native South Korea, he leapt to a more “Hollywood” situation with 2013’s Snowpiercer. Although that movie didn’t do much at the box office, it became a cult hit.
Which I admit I didn’t completely understand. I thought aspects of Snowpiercer worked well, but Bong infused it with such simplistic social commentary that it ended up as style over substance.
Given that Parasite focuses on class-related conflicts similar to those in Snowpiercer, I entered the movie with some apprehension. Bong handled these elements poorly in his earlier film, so I feared he’d give us another ham-fisted examination here.
Happily, that doesn’t prove the case, as Bong presents a much more nuanced view of social domains. Although I don’t know if I agree that this turns into a work worthy of Best Picture status, it does manage a fairly involving story of rich and poor.
One that manages to avoid the usual clichés most of the time. Normally a film like this would paint the wealthy as stock villains and the poor as true-hearted and wonderful.
That doesn’t happen in Parasite, as both sides of the economic coin get their positives and negatives. Actually, the wealthy usually seem nicer than our main characters, albeit in a clueless way.
As shown in Parasite, the biggest sin committed by the rich stems from obliviousness. To them, those on lower social strata exist as their employees and little more.
This doesn’t mean the Parks don’t care about the Kims or others, as they show some compassion and empathy at times. However, the Parks demonstrate little real regard for the Kims as human beings – they’re cogs that exist to facilitate their lives and little more.
Still, the Parks come across as caring parents, and the kids seem pleasant, though spoiled. Bong avoids the easy opportunities to make the Parks “evil”, which I respect.
On the other hand, the Kims come across as conniving and ruthless. They slowly infiltrate the Parks’ lives by any means necessary, and they show little compassion for those who stand in their way. Multiple other working class characters suffer due to the Kims’ ambitions, but the Kims seem to view them as collateral damage in a dog eat dog world.
These choices leave the Kims as less sympathetic than one might expect. Normally a movie such as this would paint them as true blue and deserving of the fruits of their labor, but instead, we get a pretty negative take.
Nonetheless, we still feel for the Kims, as the movie depicts their destitute situation in a frank manner. We see where the depths of their poverty takes them and how desperate they become.
Of course, they’re still able to afford smartphones, so they’re not completely without means, though I suspect this may offer a sly wink at modern priorities. In the 21st century world, food and a good place to live seem less essential to many than the ability to connect to the Internet.
Still, the Kims live in a world that ignores them and leaves them few legitimate opportunities for advancement. We may not care for their cutthroat methods, but we can’t really fault them, either.
Bong digs into these domains with insight and wit. Though it builds to dramatic events – and dallies with techniques more typical of horror at times – Parasite manages a light, deft touch that avoids too much sermonizing.
After the heavy-handed nature of Snowpiercer, this comes as a relief. Sure, Bong can go that way at times – such as the symbolism behind a scene in which raw sewage seeps into the Kim home – but most of the time he keeps matters subdued.
As I noted, I don’t think Parasite quite reaches the level of greatness often attributed to it, but it still becomes an effective tale. Expect a rich and entertaining drama.