10/10 2019 Palm d’Or winner Parasite screams into American theaters as a decent choice for film of the decade. Advertising has been meticulously kept free of plot details, to the point that even the premise is a bit of a spoiler. As such, this entire review should be considered a spoiler, and this is one of the rare films that really benefits from a viewer going in completely blind, so if you haven’t seen it, please stop reading. Do not rob yourself of the full pulse-pounding, gut-busting experience of this film.
Parasite is the intertwined story of the Kims and the Parks, two families of four in Seoul. The Kims are the kind of poor that puts hot sauce packets on pizza. The Parks are the kind of nonchalant upper class who would probably describe themselves as “comfortable.” Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the Kim family’s son, is recommended as a new English tutor for Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the Park family’s daughter, a job he forges a college degree to attain. During his first session, he learns the Park’s other child, Park Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), needs an art tutor, a job for which he recruits his sister, Kim Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). The duo quickly installs their parents as the Parks’ new driver and housekeeper, all under false pretenses, leaving the entire Kim family employed by the Parks in various capacities.
Then things get completely out of control.
It’s an immediately interesting question as to who the parasite is in this relationship. Marx teaches us that the rich are parasites leeching off the poor, but that’s not the case here. The Kim family is distinctly predatory, and the Parks, despite having all the money and all the power in the relationship, are never portrayed as particularly powerful. In fact, they seem kind of helpless and unaware of what’s going on around them, and there’s a lot going on around them, even outside of the Kims’ active deception.
Again, this movie gets completely out of control.
Everything about Parasite is meticulous and almost malevolent. The film sews such a mild hatred into so many details that are so small, you half feel like you’re imagining the movie as you’re watching it. It’s at once obvious and subliminal, with the details hiding in the background and upstaging the foreground at the same time.
This is the nature of Parasite’s pitch-black comedy as well – when it’s being funny, that is. It’s hilarious, but the characters are so serious you wonder if you should be laughing, until it’s decidedly not hilarious anymore and the characters remain exactly as serious, leaving you wondering the same thing still.
The best example of the film’s obnoxious duplicity is in the dialogue. Kim Ki-woo thrice repeats the line, “That’s so metaphorical,” and it’s completely infuriating. Is it a Korean idiom I don’t understand? Is it a quirk of the translation, and what he’s actually saying doesn’t have an equivalent idea in English? Or has writer/director/producer Bong Joon-ho written into the subtitles a line so deliberately on the nose it couldn’t possibly be said out loud, using the nature of subtitles to confuse me while at the same time literally writing the subtext word-for-word onto the screen? Somehow I both know for absolute certain and doubt with equal strength that it’s the latter.
Despite being set in South Korea and made by South Koreans almost entirely in the Korean language, most of Parasite seems just as impishly directed at American audiences as this line, and in many of the same deceptively direct ways. America is an aspirational concept for the Park family, and that “Western as wealthy” association is something that’s reflected in several Far Eastern cultures for both good and bad reasons. Park Da-hye is being taught English to potentially study in the U.S., and American racism is even incorporated by Park Da-song, who is obsessed with the romantic myths around American Indians. Patriarchs Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyon) and Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) even don feathered headdresses for his birthday party at the film’s end, something that would be seen as extremely racist in an American film, but not so much here – it’s still making light of the same genocide, but where white Americans would be expected to know better, these two are clearly just trying to show the child a good time.
Parasite’s complex thoughts about class obviously apply to the U.S. as well. They obviously apply all over the world right now, but they feel like they apply to the U.S. especially, partially because the U.S. is so special. Or is it because Americans think the U.S. is so special? Or is it both of those reasons, hubristic American exceptionalism and America’s genuinely unique place in the world stage, operating separately?
A big part of it is extremely choice lines like “That’s so metaphorical” which coat the script. “They’re nice because they’re rich” is the line that’s probably getting the most attention, but just about every line is that biting.
Another is the fact that it really is all so, so metaphorical. Parasite is the most densely symbolic film in several years, from obvious symbols like the stone of wealth that’s given to Kim Ki-woo early in the film to the more subtle animal symbols – while the Kims’ home is infested with stinkbugs and cockroaches, to the point that they allow themselves to be fumigated in the film’s first scene, the Parks own their animals, from the family’s three small dogs to their numerous animal-shaped items of furniture. The film even uses smell as an important motif to the greatest extent that a medium that can’t convey smell might.
But the most visible symbol, visible to the point that its in almost every shot, is physical elevation. The rich are literally above the poor in Parasite. Every inch of the film’s version of Seoul is steeply slanted, with the Parks’ house explicitly built onto the side of Bukhansan, the mountain on the city’s north edge. The Kims’ journey home is straight down the drainage system, quite literally. Differences in elevation, relative to the cityscape or the floors of their homes, are present in almost every shot, and the film’s strongest images all involve characters changing their elevation – mostly climbing or going down staircases.
Parasite is the functional climax of 2019’s gush of movies that attack class disparity head-on, as rudely as possible. This particular surge has been a few years coming, and seems to be a reaction to Bernie Sanders’ heavily resonant class-based rhetoric in the 2016 presidential election, which has obviously remained in the spotlight, but I also connect it with the Harvey Weinstein revelations from October 2017. The newly simplified concept of powerful people being bad simply for having power, however they choose to use it, be it based in money, gender or race, has been prevalent in several recent films. Us was the headliner for most of the year, but Joker brought class struggles to comic book movies, but most every movie that’s come out this year has had some number of thoughts on Marxism and power dynamics.
Parasite could almost be read as a direct upgrade on Us. It’s like a more pure version of Us, with all the distracting fantasy and racial elements removed and an even more potent weave of symbolism and class angst running throughout it. That’s no small praise.
It’s the hilarious, nailbiting film of this moment in time, of the time that feels like it’s been boiling up and finally over for the past 10 years at least. Do not miss it.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.