Korean Director Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘Parasite’ has been doing the rounds for the best part of a year before getting a general release in the UK to coincide with awards season. It was the first Korean film to win the Palm D’Or at Cannes. At the Golden Globes it picked up the Best Foreign Language Film but most impressively, it snagged Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film against some superb movies. In my opinion, 2019 was a vintage year for great films and the likes of Jo Jo Rabbit, 1917 and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood were under-appreciated.
Having seen many of those and particularly Jo Jo Rabbit and 1917, that reframed the politics and nature of patriotism in the context of what is happening to the world in a sharp shift in politics to the right. These two were, hands down, the two best films of the year – engaging and entertaining.
It was with some trepidation that I approached Parasite. The film needs to be watched fresh from any preconceptions and also without prior knowledge of plot details – I won’t go into spoilers here. The film centres around the Kim family who are living in abject poverty – father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, daughter Ki-jung and son Ki-woo. They are introduced to us through a clever and poignant opening as they explore every crevice of their tiny lodgings, trying to get free wi-fi signal from one of their neighbours.
A friend of Ki-woo pays a visit to the family and asks his good friend to take over tutoring duties for the daughter of a wealthy family while he goes off to University. Min-hyuk, the friend, is in love with the daughter and doesn’t want to leave her in the hands of anyone who might steal away his lady love. Ki-woo takes some convincing and finally accepts, forging some fake documents with his PhotoShop whizz sister to ensure the opening is his.
So ensues a comedy of errors as the Kim family slowly ease their way into the Park families architectural masterpiece of a home. The film has the standard tropes of this type of class comedy until it enters the third quarter at which point things take a tonal turn.
For the first part of the movie, I found it funny, entertaining but a little generic and the compulsion was to see what will be the undoing of the Kim family’s ploy. In the last half of the movie, the tonal shift and genre switch were clumsily made. Many reviews have stated the themes and ideologies of the rich vs poor and associated symbolism within the film but for me it felt too explicit. To compare it to something similar in style, I would suggest Get Out but where that film was clever, nuanced and then terrifying, I felt that Parasite was obvious and overstated. I have watched a few classic Korean movies and the ideas and themes within them are incredibly interesting and versatile, Oldboy being a personal favourite. Parasite tries to meld several genres and themes but doesn’t work all the time. The director’s debut movie ‘The Host’ received a lot of plaudits on it’s release in 2006 and although I enjoyed it, for me it lacked the refinement and nuance that makes a great film. As with that film, some scenes dragged on and the editing and ordering could have been more cohesive.
On a huge plus, the film looks beautiful. Every shot of the fabulous home the Park’s live in is wonderfully styled and filmed. From the high-tech gadgets, to the open-plan living area, the interior design cues and even the presentation of the privileged Park’s. The contrasts between the Kim’s meagre lodgings and those of the other Korean suburbs we see briefly is stark and the divide between rich and poor more pronounced. With the class divide, come the qualities often associated with each – the wealthy are seen as privileged, sterile, cold and joyless where as the poor are warm, convivial, crass and able to enjoy the small things.
There is a lot to like here and had it not been for the huge amount of publicity the film has received, it probably wouldn’t have been on my watch list. As it is, my wife and I both enjoyed it and it led to more discussion of something that we had seen together than any other movie or play we have been to see. I recommend it but with the reservation that you probably won’t want to see it five or more times, as Mark Kermode claims to have done!