Patrick Mulcahy on a tense portrait of rich and poor in South Korea
If one film encapsulates the end of the 2010s, it is South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Deservedly winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2019, it portrays with wit, heart, suspense, pathos and horror, the unbridgeable gap between rich and poor in Korean society. The more culturally specific a film is, the more universal is its message. Parasite explodes with universality. It is a film that embodies the title of Barack Obama’s 2006 book of essays, The Audacity of Hope.
Our heroes are the impoverished Kim family, whom we first meet trying to catch an internet signal from their mobile phones, chasing it through the dim enclosure of their semi-basement apartment. The free access they have relied upon has been abruptly stopped – their dependence on other people’s wi-fi is a metaphor for their parasitical status. Amidst constructing pizza boxes for a local firm, elder son Ki-woo (Choi Wu-shik) is visited by his well-to-do student friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) who announces he is about to go travelling. He has a lucrative job as an English teacher to Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the daughter of the head of an IT company. Min-hyuk will put in a recommendation for Ki-woo as a means of preventing other college boys from seducing Da-hye – he hopes to marry her one day. Ki-woo – and the audience – marvel at Park house for its spaciousness and elegance.
Da-hye’s mother watches Ki-woo’s lesson with interest and then mentions her young son’s artistic ‘ability’. Does Ki-woo know a teacher? Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), is an excellent forger. She prepared documents to convince the Park family that Ki-woo had completed his college education. Ki-woo presents her as someone unrelated to him who has a rare talent and whose services are difficult to secure. Before long, both siblings have a job, then work to secure employment for their father and mother, replacing both the chauffeur and housekeeper respectively. Their plan is executed perfectly, until the housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jeun-eun), returns one rainy evening.
What happens next entirely turns the film on its head – and includes a joke about impersonating a North Korean newsreader. The poor fight one another whilst the little that the Kim family possess is damaged by flooding.
Parasite is both very funny and entertaining. We root for the Kim family, at least initially because we sympathise with their impoverishment and their inability to work. The children understandably want to help their parents – they are loyal and respectful – even though their strategy is unfair. Some scenes have the precision of farce.
The shift in tone is also consummately achieved. The second half of the film has both elements of horror and Robinson Crusoe. Normally, such shifts dispense with what we enjoy. Here, though, the shift adds depth and substance to the idea that however far one gets ahead, someone else suffers.
Although the mother, Yeon-gyo, is introduced as ‘simple’, Joon-ho doesn’t parody the rich family. Yeon-gyo simply sees the best in her children’s endeavours. Her young son has a genuine trauma which is revealed in the second half.
At the heart of the film is the question: how helpful is it to aspire to be rich? Both families struggle. Both feature loving relationships. Money does not confer happiness – only security. By the end of the film, only the acquisition of excessive wealth will save one of the characters. That’s where pathos and realism come in.
The other point Joon-ho makes is that, although they may have competence and education, ‘poor people’ cannot escape their background. Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) complains to his wife of a smell he detects whilst sharing a car with his new driver, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). It is the smell of poverty associated with the Kim family’s flooded home.
Joon-ho doesn’t present class difference as a problem to be solved. Rather it is the lack of security experienced by the most impoverished that is a major problem in South Korea. The country has functioning social support schemes for families living in absolute poverty, but it also has significant youth unemployment and an ageing population. Only degrees from a trio of universities – Seoul, Korea and Yonsei (the so-called ‘SKY’) – are said to guarantee a job for a chaebol or conglomerate such as LG, Hyundai and Samsung. Students with degrees from other universities struggle to find good jobs.
Private education, as shown in the film, is a necessary consequence of limited access to good jobs. The real problem is whether only degrees from ‘SKY’ are necessary to guarantee prosperity. This is really a question for the sixty or so chaebol. One question not in doubt is that Parasite is compassionate, tense and thoughtful – one of the few prize-winning movies that genuinely deserves the hype.
Parasite opens in UK cinemas on Friday 7 February 2020