I mentioned recently that I really wanted to see Parasite, but knew little about it going in. I thought it was for the best that I keep it that way and try to see the movie as soon as possible to see what all the buzz was about.
I’m glad I did.
Bong Joon-Ho’s 2019 movie about class and desperation is a lot of different things at once. It’s partially a comedy. It has aspects of being a thriller. It is dramatic and thoughtful. Parasite shifts as it treks along and continually leaves you guessing as to what is next, and knowing just some cursory data made the ride with it all the better. If at all possible, see this movie without going in with too much information.
(And in the interest of that, I’ll remain spoiler-free until I give a warning that they are forthcoming)
The story is of a South Korean family–the Kims (Kang-Ho Song as patriarch Ki-Taek, So-Dam Park as Ki-jung, Woo-Sik Choi as Ki-woo, and Hye-Jin Jang as the mother, Chung-sook)–who are living in abject poverty, folding pizza boxes (poorly!) for a meager living. Bums routinely pee in the street right outside their window, their wi-fi and cell phones have been shut off, and stinkbugs and cockroaches are claiming their home for themselves.
When Ki-Woo’s friend offers to get him a lucrative job tutoring a sophomore who comes from a wealthy family, his whole family becomes possessed of greed. Through a chain of deception, all of the Kims get hired as various employees of the Park family, even when they have to get long-standing staff fired to do so.
From there… things happen. I can’t give it away (yet)!
At one point, my wife turned to me and asked, “Are these good people?” in regards to the Kims. It’s a good question. They are duplicitous and show only brief and minor self-reflection at their own activities. Still, they don’t quite seem as nefarious as they do desperate and needy. They are certainly greedy and short-sighted, sure, but when presented with an opportunity to improve their station in life, all they know is that they have to.
So are they “good” people? No. Then are they “bad”? Also no. They just seem realistic and pitiable, and both the script and the actors themselves are brilliant in keeping these characters in their lane and not leaning into becoming one-dimensional. It’s helped by the fact that, as con people should be, the Kims are entirely charming and likable in spite of what their deceit.
And Bong Joon-Ho’s screenplay is so much fun with its mood shifts. They movie flows from making you laugh to having you grip your armrest with seamless grace. And even in its most intense moments, it can find a way to make you laugh again (mirrored in the fate of one of the characters). Parasite creates a cornucopia of feelings inside its viewer as it goes, and I really enjoyed it.
I will attest to a few things: Mostly in that the ending is something of a letdown. Even if it does bring everything full circle to a degree.
So if you haven’t seen it, do so. It’s not flawless, but it’s great fun, and the acting is unimpeachable.
So are we ready for SPOILERS?
So having known that the film had a bit of a thriller aspect to it, I was expecting that the ultimate storyline would be that the Parks were always aware of the Kims’ machinations and would eventually turn on the family somehow.
That… isn’t even close. The Parks are as aloof and oblivious as the movie portrays them.
Instead, the movie turns when the Parks are away for a camping trip and the Kims claim the house for themselves. While partying into the night, the former housekeeper that was fired in their wake shows up and reveals that her husband has been living in a secret shelter under the house for years to avoid debt collection. Ha! Didn’t see that coming!
Just when things are looking EVEN BETTER for the Kims–the housekeeper offers them a monthly bribe to keep the secret resident cared for–they (literally) slip up and reveal themselves. With the Parks calling to announce they are returning early, the movie descends into a mad dash as the Kims try to subdue their surprise guests, remove any sign of their own mess, and make the Parks dinner for their arrival.
It’s all delightfully frantic while also gloriously intense. Characters fall into a pile of bodies to wrestle away a cell phone with an incriminating video, brawl to restrain each other in the basement, shove debris under a table, and make ram-don. It’s the juxtaposition of the latter two normally mundane activities against the much more dire former ones that sells the scene because it ALL feels important. While these characters are literally fighting each other to protect their various secrets, you as a viewer are left screaming in your head, “They’re eight minutes away! Clean up the chips you were eating!”
With the Parks back home, the movie remains both humorously zany and white-knuckling intense while the Kims try to escape the home with the homeowners settling in after their aborted trip. The movie showcases how much success simple visuals can have when Ki-Taek snake-crawls his way out from under a table and then comes to a dead stop when the homeowners wake up. A great combination of “acting” and cinematography for another moment that shouldn’t work on as many levels as it does.
The climax of the movie turns to tragedy when everything goes wrong for… everyone, honestly. While the Park couple has been relatively sin free all movie, we see that they don’t care at all about their “help” when Ki-Jung is bleeding to death on their lawn, and their lack of concern finally breaks Ki-Taek, causing him to stab his employer to death and flee the scene.
The turns and shifts that Parasite takes really shouldn’t work, but the direction and the work put in by the cast just sell everything. When Ki-woo wakes up after suffering a pretty severe head trauma, he finds he can’t stop laughing even when faced with awful situations… not unlike how the film has made you chuckle throughout even when the stakes have been high.
Even the parts of the movie I didn’t think needed to be there ultimately work if you think about them. Ki-woo’s relationship with Da-Hye–the daughter of the Parks–feels like it is extraneous, but it works when you see him carrying around the rock that his friend Min gave to him earlier in the film. Min also gave him the job with The Parks and noted he trusted Ki-woo not to lust after Da-Hye. Ki-woo then carries the rock as the symbol of the guilt that is weighing him down. It seems obvious in hindsight, but it took some reconsideration to see how it all fit.
Likewise, Ki-woo fast-talking his way into a job interview at the pizza restaurant doesn’t go anywhere, but it establishes how quick-witted and opportunistic he is for when he meets Mrs. Park and almost immediately gets Ki-Jung an interview with the family. It’s character building 101, but done sneakily enough that it caught me later when I was putting together the pieces.
This is a movie I initially liked, but the more I think about it, I might kind of love. It has already gone from “That was fun and weird” to “That was pretty well-layered and purposeful”.
I gotta quit writing off movies with subtitles because I am lazy, man.
(As a side note apropos of nothing, my favorite moment of the movie might have been when my wife, who clearly thought this was going to be something else entirely, turned to me after about 30 minutes and asked “Where the hell are the zombies at?”)