For all its prestige, winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes is often a mixed blessing that can come close to being a curse. That coveted trophy doesn’t always translate into wider success, but Bong Joon Ho – he of Snowpiercer and Okja fame – seems determined to overturn that convention with Parasite. Since last May, the film has been gradually gathering momentum, praise and nominations and, at last, arrives in UK cinemas this week, after walking away with two BAFTAs at the weekend.
His name on the credits doesn’t just whet your appetite, it makes you salivate and this is a film that will satisfy the even the most severe of hunger pangs. The intricate story centres around Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), who lives with his family in a basement: they’re all unemployed, trying everything they can to bring in money, and that includes folding pizza boxes. One of his friends is tutoring a rich teenager, but is going abroad so asks Ki-woo to cover for him. It opens a lucrative door, as the canny young man and, increasingly, the rest of his resourceful family, find ways of getting rid of other employees in the household and taking over their jobs – right under the noses of their blissfully unaware employers. It’s a nice little earner and the family are living the high life but, while their bosses are away, the housekeeper they conned out of her job turns up on the doorstep – and opens the door to entirely another world.
Try to put this one in a neat box and you’ll fail dismally. It can’t be done. Primarily, it’s a savage satire, with its sights set firmly on society – not just in South Korea but anywhere with a structure where there’s a division between rich and poor. Anywhere per se, then. That immaculate house, with its manicured grounds and beloved of its wealthy owners, is a metaphor for society – all perfection and luxury on the surface but concealing something underneath, something dark, miserable, gloomy and smelly. An entirely different world.
Let’s go back to that reference to smell, a regular theme which always points sharply towards poverty. The wealthy couple’s the little boy first spots a connection between the new staff in the house: they all smell the same. Not that his parents take any notice of his comment, but he’s right – they live in the same home, use the same detergents on their clothes, the same shampoo ….. And it’s an idea that keeps returning, but in different settings, ultimately acting as an indicator of the simmering resentment the working family feel for their employers. The fact that the couple like to make out that they treat their staff as friends – the reality is somewhat different – just makes it worse and the barriers inevitably go up.
So a social satire, but one with horror woven into its fabric, along with the most acute, most biting of comedy with more than a tinge of black. It’s also a home invasion movie, perhaps of a more benign variety, but nonetheless the genre is most definitely there. And, while the film belongs in many boxes, they are all full of unexpected treats, thrills and pleasures, wrapped up to look beautiful but showing us that underside as well. It takes us on a real hairpin bend of a ride. There’s so little you can predict, and even when you partly anticipate what’s to come, it’s impossible to guess how matters are going to come to a head. All you know is that they most certainly will – and it’s a certainty laden with foreboding.
Bong Joon Ho has crafted an exquisitely unsettling masterpiece, one that takes us into the murky depths of society and into the heart of a family which sticks together, despite their precarious lives. It’s shattering, breathtaking, jawdropping and moving on every level, a film that lives with you for hours afterwards and demands a second watch. In just two hours, we’ve watched an entire class war. One with no winners.
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Drama, Satire, Thriller | Cert: 15 | Curzon Artificial Eye | UK, 7 February 2020 | Dir. Bong Joon Ho | Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, Hyae Jin Chang, So-dam Park.