Scathing social commentary is not uncommon in the history of cinema and certainly not strange in the catalog of director Bong Joon Ho. “Parasite” is every bit the social dressing down that one would expect, but it does something a bit different and, arguably, more effective.
“Parasite” was a much-buzzed-about late addition to this year’s Fantastic Fest film programming and fits right in among the brightest stars at the nation’s largest genre film festival. This was the festival’s 15th year, and the event was marked by renaming the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar location, home of Fantastic Fest, as the Bong Joon Ho Cinema in honor of the film’s director. Bong Joon Ho was in attendance of both the dedication and the screening of his film.
In “Parasite,” a poor and unemployed family takes a particular interest in a wealthy and glamorous family and slowly infiltrates their life. Before long, a scheme to improve their situation turns into entanglement, and an unexpected incident threatens their newfound livelihood. The film stars Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, Hye-jin Jang and So-dam Park.
Calling “Parasite” a satire or dark comedy is a massive understatement. The film is blacker than the ace of spades, and behind every smirk or nod is a bitter aftertaste. Bong Joon Ho has films like “Snowpiercer” and “The Host” to compare; the man can hammer a message home. However, “Parasite” is perhaps the darkest, most grounded and, therefore, most bleak of Bong Joon Ho’s works, and it shows in nearly every aspect of the piece.
A fascinating element at work in “Parasite” is the use of stairs. More specifically, the film is always moving up and down. The entire landscape and setting of the film is comprised of steps, sloping driveways, sweeping staircases and hidden lower levels. One can almost describe the entire world of the film as a set of stairs that connects two points: the highest point at the wealthy Park residence and the lowest point in the basement-dwelling of the Ki-taek family.
We watch the Ki-taek family traverse up and down these literal and figurative stairs. Climbing to new social heights, sinking back down to the bottom, and interacting differently with the people they meet on the way. The higher you climb, the more gentle and clean it is. The lower you go, it gets grittier and rougher. A running gag in the film is the family running off a drunk that keeps pissing on the windows of their subterranean, basement apartment. In this universe, it’s possible for people to be even lower than piss. (It’s also worth noting that the layout of the apartment puts the family toilet on a high pedestal in the home. Their literal toilet is “higher” than they are. It’s goddamn brilliant.)
Beyond the simple notion of the rise and fall in class structure, “Parasite” beautifully illustrates hardship along class lines. There is a turning point scene where rain falls on the city and a flood occurs. The rain trickles from the top of the city to the bottom: At the top, nothing is perceived but a gentle rain and, at the bottom, the result is devastation and destruction. It’s a minimalist illustration, but it contains multitudes on an often overlooked grim reality of class struggle. The wealthy and the poor weather the same storms, but the experience of doing so could not be more different.
In his Fantastic Fest Q&A following the film’s screening, director Bong Joon Ho describes our world and the world of his film as “a nation of capitalism.” It’s a quote that sticks out when viewing “Parasite” through that lens. There is obvious rage against class inequity, and the wealthy Park family is portrayed as stupid, chilly and comically gullible, but the finger wags at the Ki-taek family too.
The criticism is not just of class inequity and the fact that very few live so high while the rest of the world trickles down to the lowest of the low. Above all, the film spotlights a world order where the poor bloody themselves fighting over the scraps of the rich.
When screening the film, one begins to question what the title really means. Who is the “Parasite”? If we read the film literally the parasite is the Ki-taek family, who latched themselves onto the wealth of the Parks and drained it for as long as they could. However, it is equally true that the Park family is the parasite that relies on the labor and subjugation of families like the Ki-taeks to keep them on top. Perhaps a more apt title would be “Symbiotic.”
The thing is that, while it is obvious who the heroes and villains in this story are, the film still toys with this idea of mutual reliance. Throughout the film, individuals working for the Park family feel stirrings of friendship and respect. They aspire to the lifestyle and bask in the favor that is awarded them. For a moment, the line is blurred and the gap seems to close.
It’s a brilliant thread that is brought to a frayed and heartbreaking end in the film’s climax. Don’t be fooled by kindness. “Parasite” ends with a violent statement that, in this symbiotic relationship, there is one that had a parasitic edge over the other. There is one who views the other as a means to an end. It’s a jarring cap to a lovely piece and boldly plants the film’s thesis statement in the very final moments.
“Parasite” is a must-see film built on a foundation of incredible writing and carried by a fantastic cast. We offer it our most enthusiastic recommendation.
“Parasite” opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 11.
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Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.