The dictionary describes a parasite as an organism “that lives in or on an organism of another species (its host)…” Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite does much the same with its audience.
Like any impactful film, the critical darling that just made Oscar history, stays with the audience long after the end credits have rolled. It plants a seed and grows, causing one to lose sleep. Much like the characters featured in Parasite, the tragicomedy tricks us with a hilarious first act, only to morph into something entirely different once we have let our guards down.
The uninitiated might find it all unsettlingly unpredictable, but Parasite may even pleasantly surprise cinemagoers familiar with Joon-Ho’s filmmaking.
To clear any misconceptions, Parasite is not a sci-fi film. It is not a film about literal parasites either. Instead, it tells the story of two families. One is the poverty-stricken Kim family; the other is the wealthy Park family.
Both are families of four. Both have two parents, one daughter and one son. But one family lives in a dingy basement apartment, where they leave the windows open to steal Wi-Fi from the neighbours and get “free extermination” when fumigators are spraying the streets.
The other family lives in a gated house under the watchful gaze of CCTV cameras. Both houses have glass fronts. But while the Kims’ view is drunks urinating in front of their broken windows, the Parks’ view is the mountains, far from the madding crowd of Seoul city.
Ki-woo, the Kim family’s son, lands a tutoring gig at the Park home. He is hired to teach English to their teenage daughter, Da-hye. Once Ki-woo enters this beautiful house, that the housekeeper tells him was custom-built by a famous architect and the house’s original tenant, he starts to find opportunities to have the Parks hire more of his family members as help.
His sister Ki-woo pretending to be Jessica, an art therapist and teacher, starts ‘working’ with the Park’s artistic but troubled little boy, Da-Song. And eventually the Kim mother takes over as the housekeeper, and the father is hired as the driver.
Things take an ugly turn just as the Kims’ fortunes are starting to change and they are all gleefully employed at the Park home. Above all, Parasite is a story about class and inequality. It is a great study in how the rich, even perfectly pleasant folks like the Parks, see the poor.
Before being introduced to the Park family, the audience has spent time with the Kims. We know that they are struggling and see them as humans. But when they take on different personas to work for the Parks, they are stripped not only of their identities (and real names), but seemingly of their humanity too.
It is a testament to Joon-Ho’s writing and direction that not only do we start to see the Kims from the Parks’ perspective, but also smell them. Joon-Ho, along with an incredible ensemble cast, tells a compelling story about class without ever being preachy.
Parasite explores themes that resonate globally. The story may be based in Seoul, but it could just as easily be set Karachi, Mumbai, New York or any metropolis with uneven division of wealth.
The Oscar buzz for Parasite was loud even before it took home the Best Picture prize on Sunday. Interestingly, the way Joon-Ho’s film tells the story about a house reminds one of Roma, another international film that made history by receiving a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards last year.
Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s film about the so-called Dirty War is also a story about a family home in Mexico City, told from the perspective of the live-in nanny. But while Cuarón shows the house as a safe space away from the war, the sleek house in Joon-Ho’s film is only a perceived safe space.
Of course Roma could not take home the big prize last year, but its nomination and Parasite’s win are great news for filmmakers making non-English films for a global audience. The Oscar win will help Parasite reach an even larger audience round the world.
And once the audience decides to watch the film, Joon-Ho’s compelling storytelling keep them hooked. After all, Parasite explores themes that resonate globally. The story may be based in Seoul, but it could just as easily be set Karachi, Mumbai, New York or any metropolis with uneven division of wealth.
Accepting his Golden Globe for foreign language film, Joon-Ho said (speaking in Korean), “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Indeed, Parasite is a great introduction to the world of South Korean cinema.
Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content
A version of this review was published in Dawn, ICON, February 9th, 2020