“Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it,” is an age old adage that serves as a warning to be wary of the things we covet lest they bring about our own destruction, and for Bong Joon-ho’s latest film Parasite, the phrase couldn’t be more appropriate. Here, dark humor, very pointed storytelling, and even architecture are just some of the threads Bong uses to weave a cautionary tale about the dangers of jealousy, hubris, insecurities and wanting to fit in. For the Kim family their desperation to improve their circumstances reveals the dark path these feelings can lead people down.
When Kim Ki-woo’s (Choi Woo-shik) friend Min (Park Seo-joon) recommends a job as a private tutor for his former employers the Parks, Ki-woo decides to do it despite lacking the educational requirements. To boost his resume, Ki-woo goes to his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam), who possesses an almost savant talent for forgery, to create the necessary university credentials needed to impress Mrs. Park, Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-Jeong). Wearing his best suit, a backpack, and with his fake resume in hand, Ki-woo goes to interview with Yeon-kyo at her home. Filled with a mix of hope and trepidation, Ki-woo enters the compound changing the course of his family’s life.
If there’s one thing that might convey the wealth of a family literally anywhere in the world, it would be perfectly manicured lawns being kept green with sprinklers spraying arcs of crystal-clear water under the blazing heat of a summer sun. In a world where droughts are becoming more prevalent, the ability of the Parks to waste this precious commodity on a patch of grass, that no one sees but them, with reckless abandon seems particularly boastful. This being the first thing Ki-woo sees when he walks through the giant steel and wood gate is a clear indicator of just how poor his family is. After convincing Mrs. Park, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeon) that he’s the right person to help her daughter Da-hye (Jung- Ji-so), Ki-woo goes home and reveals to his family just how rich his new employers are. Seeing the opportunity to not only become employed once again but potentially raise his family’s status, Ki-woo’s father Ki-taek hatches a plan to infiltrate the Park household.
One by one the Kims gain the confidence of Yeon-kyo and entry into her home. As a writer, Bong has a knack for creating complex characters and giving unexpected depth to them, as he does with Parasite. Instead of being the cliched character trope of cold and unapproachable rich people, the Parks are the opposite, creating an interesting conflict between the two families. Yeon-kyo is surprisingly warm and open to the point of being naïve. She shows genuine love and concern for her children, especially her young son Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun) and listens to any suggestions Ki-woo and Ki-jung make. Being the lady of the house, Yeon-kyo bares the majority of the responsibility of running the household and taking care of everyone’s needs, but her husband Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) makes sure it’s not a burden to her. As a husband and father, he’s affectionate and caring, as an employer he’s fair, respectful, and has a somewhat surprising wry sense of humor.
While it was Ki-taek who instigated the plan, it’s Ki-jung who proves to be the one to watch out for. Super smart and intuitive, she has the ability to quickly assess a situation and figure out how to turn it to her advantage as she does when convincing Yeon-kyo to give her and Da-song private time to work on his art therapy. Like Ki-Jung, Park So-dam is the standout in a film filled with strong performances. Park conveys Ki-jung’s shrewdness with precision and always seems to be observing everyone around her even when she seems disinterested.
As the Kims ingratiate themselves into the Park’s lives, they become even more envious, questioning why they should be satisfied with just being the help. Ki-taek and his wife Chung-Sook (Chang Hyae Jin) look around the big house, with its expensive artwork and fancy dinnerware, lament at their inability to provide such luxuries for their children. Ki-jung and Ki-woo wish they had their own bedrooms and the privacy they’re deprived of in their own home.
From the very beginning, it’s been made clear that Parasite is about the struggle of class and social acceptance. Beginning with the forgery of academic records from the country’s top university, to giving themselves Western names like Kevin and Jessica, which leads to another discussion about the pervasiveness of colonialism. They do what they can to appear more sophisticated.
The Parks and Kims are literal representations of the ‘Haves and Have nots,’ and it’s brilliantly represented in the visuals of the film. With the production design by Lee Ha-jun, costume by Choi Se-yeon and cinematography, the world is split between the open floor plan of the Park home with it’s polished concrete countertops, leather sectionals, floor to ceiling glass windows looking onto the lawn, which is perfectly juxtaposed against the grey and dingy cement walls of the Kim’s basement home.
With practically every space filled with their possessions and pizza boxes they fold to make extra money, the close quarters are made to feel even smaller with awkward camera angles and close up of the occupants as they try to move around each other. For the Parks, their clothing consists of light airy linens and shiny satins for Yeon Kim and tailored suits for Mr. Park. In contrast, Chung-sook wears the comfortable but plain cotton clothing of a housekeeper, and Ki-taek wears a suit that according to Mr. Park always seems to smell faintly of radishes…or maybe the scent is permeating from his skin?
Feeling emboldened by the trust the Parks have placed in them, Ki-taek and his family take bigger and bigger risks to gain control, leading them to place others in danger. As a film, Parasite, itself is one giant metaphor about life and the best way to describe the third act without spoiling it would be “When it rains, it pours”, and does it ever here. Like a sudden torrential downpour, the tone of the film takes a swift turn from satire to thriller when everything comes to a head on the weekend of Da-song’s birthday. Deeply hidden secrets are revealed, and all hell breaks loose, with one intricate plot twist after the other unraveling, leaving viewers barely enough time to catch their breath in between.
As a director and writer Bong is known for his ability to seamlessly integrate social commentary into his films in a way that makes you view the world around you from a different perspective. While his films may focus on South-Korean society, many of the themes are evident all around the globe. If capitalism, status, wealth and education are valued more than a person’s character where you live, then Parasite will be very relatable. How many of us have driven or walked past mansions hidden behind carefully pruned hedges and wondered what life must be like for those who privileged to live within? Who hasn’t felt the pressure to achieve the goals set by those in power, because their idea of success is what we measure ourselves against?
By the end, both families are irrevocably changed, confined in prisons of their own making, and audiences are left questioning just how far they’d be willing to go to achieve their desires. I’ll finish off by saying; if you want to make God laugh, make plans.
Parasite releases in Canadian theatres October 25, 2019.
Images courtesy of TIFF
Carolyn is a Freelance Film Critic, Journalist, and Podcaster – and avid live tweeter. Member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), her published work can be found on But Why Tho, The Beat, Observer, and many other sites. As a critic, she believes her personal experiences and outlook on life, give readers and listeners a different perspective they can appreciate.