By Jeremy Clarke.
Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) strikes it lucky when he hears of the rich Park family, whose teenage daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso) needs extra tuition. Sensing Mrs Park (Jo Yeo-jeong) will be a push-over, he convinces her he is the man for the job, thanks to credentials forged by his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam). Having successfully nailed down this position, Ki-woo sets about securing similarly lucrative openings for his family, without letting on that they are blood relatives.
He first recommends his sister as the perfect tutor for the tormented and allegedly artistic Park son (Jung Hyun-jun), a job she secures by inventing bogus pop psychology theories to establish her academic credentials. Before long, the cunning Kims have framed the chauffeur and the house-keeper to nab jobs for themselves, unaware of other secrets harboured by the Parks. The house is the work of a famous architect; the sacked house-keeper (Lee Jeong-eun) has issues of her own and is not gone for good.
Bong Joon-ho seems to possess a consistent knack for delivering films to audiences that they didn’t realise they wanted to see until they’re watching and discovering that they love them. These have included his debut feature Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) with its spooky apartment block tales, through The Host (2006) in which a giant fish terrorises people near Seoul’s Han River, to the Netflix-funded Okja (2017) in which a boy must rescue his family’s beloved, genetically modified super-pig from being turned into food at a slaughterhouse. The Oscar-nominated Parasite arguably ups his game.
Like Kurosawa in High and Low (1963), Bong posits an urban environment where the rich live at the top of the town in rarefied and uncluttered surroundings, with the poor below in comparatively cramped conditions. Evoking the wheeler-dealers of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (2018) the unemployed Kims struggle to pay the bills and scam whatever they can for free, although they are prepared to take on any paying work they can find. The sheer desperation of the Kims is matched by their ingenuity at constantly securing themselves something for nothing wherever they can, including junior’s innovative quest for a free wi-fi signal he can leech, which he finds somewhere above the toilet.
In marked contrast to the Parks’ quiet street, the densely populated slum above the Kims’ basement flat sits at the bottom of a hill beneath an ugly jumble of telecoms wires. When Kim senior and his two offspring flee the Park house in a storm, Bong takes great care to show us the lengthy journey through the torrential rain descending via a series of staircases, road tunnels and downwards headed streets. Right at the bottom end of all this is the Kims’ basement home, flooded. They and their neighbours must spend the night in an emergency shelter set up at the local gym. Blissfully unaware of the suffering endured by the ordinary people down below them, the cossetted Parks think nothing of phoning them one by one to ask them to come over and help out with their son’s birthday party.
Somewhere in Parasite’s final third, three of the Kims have to make their escape when the Parks come home unexpectedly from a camping trip. Knowing the Parks were away for the weekend, their new housekeeper (Chang Hyae-jin) had illicitly moved her family in without the Parks’ knowledge to take full advantage of the premises, consuming packets of snacks and expensive bottles of whisky. Father (Song Kang-ho) son and daughter hide flat on their backs in the open-plan lounge, under a coffee table.
The husband Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) and his wife are relaxing on the sofa and armed with a walkie talkie in case their Native American-obsessed son Park Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung) calls them from inside his garden teepee wherein he’s camping overnight. To quietly leave the house unnoticed the three concealed Kims must wait for the Park parents to complete a bout of mutual masturbation and fall asleep. Mr Kim’s son and daughter have descended the stairs and Ki-taek has pulled himself halfway there across the wooden floor when Da-song calls the Park parents’ walkie-talkie, waking them up. Will they discover Ki-taek, frozen in mid-floor crossing?
The complex scene gives an idea of just how skilfully director Bong choreographs the many disparate elements at his disposal. Every scene in the film follows this template in the sense that, like Hitchcock, who began in the movie business as an art director, Bong thinks visually and possesses an intimate knowledge of the geography of his locations. On first viewing, there are plenty of plot twists and turns to keep you guessing where all this is going. Like Hitchcock’s Psycho, it repays multiple viewings with numerous details you won’t spot first time round because there’s so much going on.
Parasite is released in the UK and Ireland on 7th February 2020.