“You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned.”
There was a lot of buzz in 2019 about Parasite, but I didn’t get a chance to see it until recently. I will say, it is every bit as great as the buzz makes it out to be. Directed by Bong Joon Ho (Okja, Snowpiercer) and starring Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, and Yeo-jeong Jo, this South Korean dramatic thriller makes a powerful statement on wealth, class, and inequality. The story is complex, without clear antagonists and even protagonists (I really wasn’t sure who I should be rooting for in some spots), and we’re instead shown how unfair life can be for those without the good fortune to be born in the right places and families. The film has the neutrality of a good documentary, showing us the interesting and sometimes shocking events without making a strong comment on who’s right and who’s wrong. This is a film that left me thinking for long after the credits rolled, even days after I viewed the film.
The plot focuses on two families: the Kims, a poor family living in a small sub-basement apartment, and the Parks, a rich family living in a posh ultra-modern house. The Kims constantly have trouble making ends meet while the Parks live a life of ease and luxury, hiring people to do all of the mundane tasks they don’t want to do. When Ki-woo, the Kims’ son, lands a job as an English tutor for the Parks’ teenage daughter, he sees an opportunity and recommends his sister Ki-jung to be the art tutor for the Parks’ young son, conveniently leaving out the fact that they’re related. Soon, the entire Kim family is employed by the Parks. The Kims experience luxury vicariously through their employers while the Parks remain hopelessly out of touch with the plight of the poor people living so close to them. The differences they experience in class and privilege lead to some tensions between the two families, especially when the two families realize that no amount of social climbing will put the Kims on the same level as the Parks.
If I had all this, I would be kinder.
Parasite is a movie that made me think, and that’s probably what I appreciated most about it. Director Joon Ho made the point of the film both direct and complex, so it’s easy to see that the film is making a point, but it takes a while to arrive at exactly what that point is. Make no mistake, this is a message movie, and if you’re expecting a straightforward thriller, you may be a bit disappointed. But for those wanting to think a bit more about how films comment on real problems, this does not disappoint. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the point is not as simple as “rich people are evil,” or “poor people have it rough.” Instead, the film examines how social structures like class impact not only how we view the world, but also what actions we deem normal or necessary. There’s a world of difference between the Kims and the Parks, but I don’t think either of them realized it until they started taking closer looks at each other.
There’s some disagreement as to the meaning of the title of the film itself, with some people saying that the Kims are clearly the parasites, while others argue that the Parks are parasitic in much more subtle ways, with still others saying that both the Kims and the Parks are parasites. There’s no clear definition as to which of these theories is correct, but I’m going to throw another theory out there. We can argue over who is more parasitic, the poor Kims or the rich Parks, but society generally sides with the rich in calling the poor classes more parasitic, leaching off of the hard workers who are “contributing more to society.” In other words, society has already labeled the Kims as parasites. If you look at their actions in the film outside of the context of how their poverty forced them into some bad decisions, they can definitely seem parasitic. So I think the title Parasite has a lot more in common with the movie Clueless in that it doesn’t make a statement on who embodies that trait; instead, it examines the group that society has already labeled as parasitic, showing us why they make those decisions and what repercussions they face even outside of legality. Is my theory more correct than the other people theorizing on this? Well, obviously I think so, but you’ll probably want to watch the film and decide for yourself.
I may lose some of my legitimacy as a critic for saying this, but when I originally heard that this film was a smart commentary on class and social dynamics, I was a little worried that it would be, well, boring. If you’re worried about that too, don’t be—the film has some dark comedic elements to keep things entertaining, but the tension builds throughout the film and it ratchets up to levels I never anticipated coming into it. It took some time after viewing the film to unpack everything I had just watched, but at no point in the film was I bored. Parasite kept me engaged from beginning to end, but the ending was especially gripping, as well as poignant.
Parasite was a brilliant film, although it is admittedly not for everyone. It’s not as straightforward an experience as many blockbusters or thrillers, which may turn some viewers off; although for those willing to spend some time thinking about the meaning behind this film, it rewards viewers with some thought-provoking and even surprising comments on these issues. The translated subtitles were excellent and didn’t hinder the story or immersion. Although I’ve gone on at length about how this is a thinking movie, it’s not so tightly wound that it’s difficult to parse. Overall, I really enjoyed this film and recommend it to anyone looking for a deeper dramatic thriller.
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Director: Bong Joon Ho
Genres: drama, thriller