Critically acclaimed auteur Bong Joon-ho returned to Cannes Film Festival this year, making him the first South Korean director to win the prestigious Palme d’Or award for his latest work, “Parasite,” a darkly-chilling examination of class inequity and an indictment of late capitalism.
Bong is a peculiar director whose previous works include “Memories of Murder” and “Snowpiercer.” His films regularly transcend the genre qualities one expects it would be beholden to; rather, they are often amalgamations of contrasting genres that are somehow pieced together under the resolute command of his craft. Moreover, his films frequently critique the subject of social and class inequity — a pervasive theme for South Korea since the financial crisis of 1997 that largely affected the country’s middle class.
His latest work, “Parasite,” follows this tradition. There are so many twists and turns in the film that crucially inform its political message that it is best to go in cold without reading the movie synopsis. The basic plot revolves around the Kim family that is best described as a pack of grifters: all unemployed, living in a gloomy basement and headed towards poverty. They leech off Wi-Fi from surrounding coffee shops and fold pizza boxes to stay financially afloat. When the neighborhood fumigator comes their way to spray the surrounding streets, they purposefully leave their windows open, in hopes of killing the pests that live among them.
The eldest son, Ki-woo, is given the opportunity to tutor a wealthy teenage girl, Da-hye Park, and coyly introduces himself as “Kevin” to her family. With his cunning, Ki-woo succeeds in getting the rest of his family employed by the Parks, each maintaining separate identities: his sister as an art teacher to Da-hye’s younger brother, his father as the chauffeur to the wealthy Park patriarch, and his mother as the housekeeper. Slowly but surely, the Kims invade the Parks’ household.
The first half of the film is a comedy of manners akin to Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” as the audience root for the downtrodden Kims to succeed at the expense of the Parks. It is undeniably entertaining and cathartic seeing the Parks get their comeuppance in this heightened reality.
The Parks aren’t the stereotypical wealthy family who are secretly miserable, nor do they hold an outwardly elitist worldview. They live in a large house, wear expensive clothes and lament on small pity issues; but underneath their glamorous facade lies an ignorance that preserves their immaculate lifestyles — the Parks are bafflingly naive and blissfully ignorant of the fact that their success and wealth is built off the backs of the invisible working class. This obliviousness and bewilderment to social and class inequities somehow make the Parks even more despicable than if they were pompous and arrogant about their privilege.
This is not to say the Kims are made to be saints by virtue of the Parks’ ignorance. The Kims are relentlessly conniving as they assimilate into the Park family, leeching off their wealth and privilege. But even as the Kims become increasingly convincing in their respective roles, the film questions whether they can truly fit within this higher class. At one point Ki-woo asks Da-hye: “In this setting, do I fit in?” Bong forces his audience to confront the truth of capitalism and whether social mobility is even possible when the poor are fighting among themselves to survive while the rich grow richer and more ignorant of the societal issues that plague the most vulnerable. While the film is steeped in social commentary, it is thoroughly entertaining and never feels like a didactic movie.
Meticulously crafted and undeniably compelling, “Parasite” succeeds in its effortless shifts between family drama, comedic satire and suburban horror to deftly examine the exploitative symbiotic relationship between social classes. It daringly questions whether we too are seduced by the alluring lifestyles of the wealthy as to ignore the appalling social conditions needed to sustain them. “Parasite” is biting and timely commentary that aptly bookends the 2010s.
It is a must-see this year.
Ethan Chu is a sophomore advertising major from Hong Kong. He enjoys coffee, 1960s music and the television show “Mad Men.”