Movie Review: Why Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) Is A True Cinematic Masterpiece
Directed by Bong Joon-ho (Okja, Snowpiercer, The Host), Parasite is a dark comedy thriller that follows a poor family as they conspire to infiltrate a well-to-do household. By slowly positioning themselves as service personnel of the wealthy Park family, the Kims find themselves in better living conditions than before, trading up their sub-basement apartment for a beautiful mansion.
The Kims fake their credentials to integrate themselves in the lives of the naïve Park family. The ruse continues seamlessly until one rainy evening. At the door, the former housekeeper begs to be let in: she’s left something behind. The Kims, interrupted from an evening of drunken revelry, reluctantly humour her. She proceeds to go to the kitchen and unveils a secret passageway going to a basement none of them have seen before. In the basement, housekeeper Moon-gwang reveals what she’s forgotten behind — her husband.
Living in the Park’s secret basement, Moon-gwang’s husband has been eagerly waiting for her return. Having been sequestered to hide from debts, he survives through stolen provisions by Moon-gwang. Tension quickens as the Park family suddenly calls to say that they are on their way home; their out of town trip has been cut short due to the rain. Struggle ensues and Moon-gwang is pushed down the basement so she and her husband cannot get out. The Kims scurry like cockroaches to clean the place up so the Parks remain none the wiser.
The Parks arrive to a quiet and normal home. Chung-sook, the Kim matriarch and now housekeeper attends to the Park family. Hiding underneath the living room table, the three other Kims struggle to remain unfound. The evening fades as the Parks fall asleep. In the darkness, the Kims find a way to escape. They brave the strong rains outside.
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Running away from the Park mansion, they find themselves descending into the dark city. The rain turns into flood, strong streams turn into high waters — they find their way to a ruined home. Water everywhere; nothing left to be salvaged now. They retreat to an evacuation centre where Kim patriarch, Ki-taek, muses upon the exasperating ordeal.
In the morning, they return to the Park mansion to help with a birthday party. The sun is up and guests are pearl-clad and well-dressed. The Kims don borrowed clothes from the shelter. Under the mansion, struggle unfolds. Moon-gwang’s husband escapes and in a rage of fury runs out to the garden party and stabs the Kims’ daughter. Upon sight of this, the young Park boy goes into a seizure. Chung-sook kills the deranged man from the basement with a meat skewer. Mr. Park asks Ki-taek to drive them to the hospital; Ki-taek hesitates wanting to help his own injured daughter. Mr. Park then proceeds to retrieve the car keys himself near the bloody commotion. Upon smelling Moon-gwang’s dying husband, he recoils at the stench. Ki-taek sees this and stabs Mr. Park. Everyone panics and escapes the tumultuous scene.
Economy of Relationships
Is Parasite appealing to audiences because of its hyperbolic plot? Definitely. However, I argue here that its inescapable relatability is what makes the cinematic experience truly fulfilling and engaging. Through dramatic twists and juxtaposition, it reminds us that somehow, we can all be parasitic to one another. French philosopher Jacques Derrida notes in his book, The Politics of Friendship, that “philia (love or fondness) begins with the possibility of survival and that surviving is the other name of a mourning whose possibility is never to be awaited.”
Parasite reminds us of this mourning. The constant struggle to float above water; a difficulty never anticipated or desired — yet continually experienced. The Kims here are stand-ins for one’s personal desires for social mobility and acceptance. They represent survival in its boldest form: manipulative and primal.
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The term 'parasite' here takes many forms. This flexibility is perhaps the easiest marker for Bong Joon-ho’s incredible skill as a director. The parasitic sensibility of each character evolves in every scene and frame. Equally explored through the larger Korean universe which they inhabit. Everyone is simply out to survive, no matter the cost.
The Park family may also be seen as a commentary on the neoliberal and capitalist system that the movie seems to criticise. They are portrayed as naïve and almost too easy to string along. Their needs are superfluous next to the destitute Kims. Yet, somehow they are beacons of survival — of being — in an exhausting world. Their household is one that the Kims can only access through make-believe and constant charade.
The ending here provides a strong closure unmatched by any of Bong Joon-ho’s earlier works. It is gore with as much shock value as philosophical fulfilment. The chaotic and bloody sequence is a recap of the entire film’s political ebb and flow. In the end, we are all bursting at the seams, aching to confront our oppressors, even if they don’t realise the minutiae of their abuse.
The oppressors here are not simply the Parks, even if they are so easily portrayed as such. It may also be the larger system, the flooded city, unemployment, but moreover, the inescapable structure which every character unwillingly or unconsciously perpetuates.
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Parasites are defined by their unapologetic need to survive. They can be covert or otherwise. In today’s hyper-realistic world (as in Umberto Eco), we all cling to longevity. We all mourn against symbolic and literal death. Our survival is our cry. Parasite reminds us of this existential dread — how does one best survive — emotionally, financially, socially, or psychologically? More importantly, how far do you go to attain this?
A cinematic masterpiece through and through, it will be a shame if this film receives a snub at the 2020 Academy Awards. Its technical prowess is matched by the sophisticated screenplay and equally excellent performances by every cast member. A true cinematic gem, Parasite’s artistry cannot be overstated. A film that easily serves as a bottomless reserve of critical interpretation - this is what one expects of cinema, especially in today's unsettling political landscape.
Ultimately, it reminds us of this aphorism: in an unkind world, there is no other choice but to survive.