If there was ever a movie to live up to the massive hype surrounding it, it’s Bong Joon-Ho’s latest satirical dark comedy, Parasite. The idea of a Korean-language, genre-bending meditation on income inequality that clocks in at over two hours sounds overwhelming, but it is the most exciting film that has been released in 2019.
Parasite follows the lower-class Kim family as they scam their way into the home of the Park family. The film opens with the Kims in a semi-basement apartment, folding pizza boxes to earn enough to survive. The family is made up of Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and Park Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), as well as their two adult children, Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam).
Ki-woo is visited by an old friend who offers to recommend him as a tutor for a wealthy family. Ki-woo objects, saying he doesn’t have the educational credentials to tutor. His friend quickly responds that it doesn’t matter since he could tutor as well as anyone with a college degree. Ki-jung, a gifted artist, quickly forges some documents for Ki-woo and he gets the job for the Park family under the name “Kevin.”
Once Ki-woo ingratiates himself to the Parks, he is able to scam them into hiring his entire family. They manipulate the trust of Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeon) to frame the former employees. Soon, Ki-taek becomes the driver, Chung-sook takes over as the nanny, and Ki-jung, (now referred to as “Jessica”) becomes an art tutor—the catch being that the Parks believe their new employees to all be strangers to each other. It comes to the point where the Parks are paying for the Kims' entire lives.
Every element of the plot is under Bong Joon-Ho’s control in such a specific way to create a film that transcends genre. The plot is somewhat simple, but every twist is so shocking that it becomes difficult to determine how to feel about either family. It is hard to tell from one minute to the next whether you will be laughing, angry, sad, or disgusted. Most likely it will be a combination of all of these. It is one in a series of Joon-Ho's movies that explores themes of capitalism and class structure, particularly within Korea, and that carries elements of thriller, horror, comedy, and drama. The director’s clear infatuation with Korean class structures comes across so distinctly on screen that it is difficult to walk out of the theater without feeling some way about the topic yourself.
The film has not only been critically successful, but has also performed well commercially. The majority of the money made is from South Korea, with $70.9 of the $86.7 million total gross earned there. The opening weekend in South Korea made about $20 million, which is massive for a country of its size. It seems that many in the country are connecting to the realistic portrayal of income inequality and the realities of poverty. In the U.S., it has grossed $1.9 million. Its opening weekend had a per-venue average of $125,421, the best since 2016’s La La Land and the best ever for any foreign film.
Parasite is the first film from South Korea to earn Cannes Film Festival’s highest honor, the Palme d’Or. It is already South Korea’s official selection for Best International Film at the Academy Awards next year and also a favorite to receive a Best Picture nomination. It would be the first South Korean movie to be recognized at the Oscars, even though they have sent in dozens of films since the 1960s, and the first foreign language film to win the top prize of Best Picture.
A parasite, in a derogatory sense, is someone who relies on or exploits another with nothing in return. The film is particularly unique because, by the end, it isn’t clear who Bong Joon-Ho intends to designate as the parasite. The wealthy Park family is outsourcing their labor and capitalizing on the needs of the poor Kim family to do so. On the other hand, the Kims are clearly scamming the Park for resources. The relationship between the families is both mutually beneficial and destructive. It is rare to see a film that offers such insight and challenges conventional ideas of such a complex topic. In the end, it is up to the viewer to decide who is feeding on who and what will end the destructive cycle, if it can be fixed at all.