Note: This is a re-post of our Parasite review from the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. The movie expands into more theaters nationwide this weekend.
You realize a good five minutes into Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite that things aren’t going well for the family of fortysomething Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). Crowded into a basement dwelling in one of the poorest of Seoul’s neighborhoods, they mooch off the wi-fi of their neighbors and turn folding pizza boxes into a group project to make cash. It’s tough, but his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Kim-jung (Park So-dam) aren’t despondent over it. They’re simply doing what they need to do to get by and laughing with each other along the way. When an opportunity comes Ki-woo’s way that could change the family’s fortunes they devour it like a team of expert scammers stealing the life savings from residents at a Florida nursing home. That may sound devilish out of context, but Joon-ho has the cinematic skills of James Cameron if Cameron actually had something to say. This isn’t gonna be your typical con job (and it’s not going to be as overtly genre as some of Joon-ho’s recent works either).
The family scam begins when Ki-woo’s longtime buddy (Park Seo-joon) offers him the chance to take over his lucrative tutoring gig. He’s heading to grad school overseas and needs someone to replace him that won’t ruin the clandestine love affair he’s having with teenager Da-hye (Jung Ziso). Ki-woo hasn’t actually gone to university but having taken the entrance exam four times he knows enough to fake teach it. Da-hye is the daughter of Mr. Park (Song Kang-ho), an affluent video game executive, and her family lives in a gorgeous, architecturally designed home in an upscale version of Seoul’s Hollywood Hills (Joon-ho makes sure to visually define that Ki-woo’s family is at the far bottom of these tiers of wealth).
Helping Ki-woo’s efforts is the fact that Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), Da-hye’s mother, is incredibly naive. She doesn’t question Ki-woo’s tutoring skills whatsoever and is quickly open to having an “acquaintance” (hustled by his sister) tutor the family’s artistically talented but hyperactive young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). Ki-woo’s skills begin with his kind and sheepish nature. His sister, on the other hand, uses a fraudulent confidence to convince Yeon-kyo she actually knows anything about art psychology or teaching art at all.
At this point, Ki-taek’s family embarks on a thrilling plan to insert both Ki-taek and his wife permanent positions in Mr. Park’s household as well. Director Joon-ho’s skills are almost unmatched in depicting this sort of elaborate con game. Not only is it immensely entertaining, but you’re somehow rooting for Ki-taek’s team to pull it off. And why wouldn’t you be? Mr. Park’s family are subtly snobby and perhaps a bit unaware of their own privilege, but Ki-taek makes a fine chauffer and his wife a more than acceptable housekeeper. Who cares if anyone innocent got hurt along the way? In fact, their plan to infest Mr. Park’s family seems to be going swimmingly, until unforeseen figures complicate their plan.
To divulge anything more would ruin the almost ingenious twists and turns Joon-ho has crafted in Parasite. From a storytelling perspective they are superb. Not just because of how they technically move the narrative forward, but how he expertly weaves in a compelling social narrative. In Parasite there is no middle for Ki-taek’s family to ascend to. You’re either rich or you’re poor. And, when it comes down to it, the rich secretly think the worst of you. You’re there to serve them. Their needs come first.
Obviously, these are not new themes or issues unheard of within the global economy, but it’s not often a filmmaker finds a way to portray it in such unique shades of grey. Besides the two children, almost no one in the movie gets off Scott-Free. They’ve all done something despicable or hypocritical. It’s all a mess and everyone is responsible in some manner or another. People are doing what they can to get what they can. And when you realize that the Parasite in question may not just be Ki-taek’s family, but Mr. Park’s as well is when Joon-ho own grand plan gloriously comes to light.