By Michael DePietro
NIAGARA UNIVERSITY, N.Y. – The big winner at this year’s Academy Award was “Parasite,” a genre-defying dramatic thriller with pitch black comedic undertones. The film was directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. The film received six nominations, ultimately taking home the prizes for winning for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film and most notably, Best Picture- becoming the first foreign film to do so.
The film follows the hardworking Kims, an affable lower class family struggling to make ends meet. Living in a bug infested semi-basement apartment, the family have little more than each other to lean on as they aspire for a richer life. The opportunity eventually presents itself for Ki-woo, their eldest son whom, after forging a college degree, gets a job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family.
The Park’s meticulously designed hillside mansion looks down, literally and figuratively, on the squalid neighborhood that Ki-woo and his family call home. For Ki-woo, the Park’s lifestyle is like something out of a dream. But despite their good financial fortune, the Park’s family lacks the togetherness of the Kims. The Parks children are starved for attention while their parents can barely stand one another except when keeping up appearances.
After quickly winning the trust of Mrs. Parks, Ki-woo soon hatches a plan to exploit her naive nature and gradually cons the Parks into hiring the rest of his family for various jobs around their estate. With money flowing in, the family believes their troubles are behind them. But the the side-effects of excess and the weight of their own deceptions, begin to threaten their new-found prosperity.
The setup for the Kims infiltration of the Park’s home is admittedly a bit prosaic in its execution. Ki-woo’s plan is so thinly veiled that the Park’s gullibility is almost unbelievable. Despite this however, we take joy in watching this cleverly charming lower-class family upend their stuffy, upper-class counterparts.
Despite it’s language barrier, the story itself is universally relatable for anyone who’s ever forgone sleep, sacrificed their health and worked grueling hours just to struggle to pay rent. It doesn’t take a Marxist to recognize how the same capitalistic pitfalls that have upended the lives of many working-class American families present themselves through the Kim family’s struggles. Since it’s Western premier at the Cannes Film Festival last year, American critics and audiences have responded positively to “Parasite” in part because the plight of the Kim family feels so familiar.
But the Kim family’s sudden success, built upon a bedrock of deceit, seems almost certain to collapse in the end. As if to assure this fate, Bong plants a number of seeds along the way that seem guaranteed to upend their rags-to-riches tale by the closing credits. By the halfway point of the film, you feel like you’re watching a slow-motion car crash; you know how it ends, there’s nothing that can be done to stop it, but you can’t look away. Most directors would be content with that accomplishment, but not Bong. Just at the moment of impact, he sets off a bomb, violently shredding our expectations.
By the film’s second half, what had begun as a poignant, yet lighthearted family drama suddenly becomes an intense dramatic thriller with twists and surprises that will leave jaws firmly affixed to floors.
Amid these shocking event’s, Bong slowly unveils the underlying pathos and moral complexity of his characters. He unravels the caricature-esque depictions of class and status presented at the beginning of film to show us how people’s behaviors and actions are altogether molded by the systems in which they are subservient to. In the end, Bong forces us to examine the way economic power defines society’s structure and shows the lengths people can go to escape its bottom rung.
“Parasite” is nothing if not a master class in powerful filmmaking. Every shot is drenched in meaning and metaphor and the music and sound design bathe the carefully curated set pieces in emotion and purpose. Few filmmakers can balance their themes and story as well as Bong does. The film is poignant without feeling conspicuous; stirring without being too preachy. In the end, “Parasite” is a thoughtful and hauntingly brilliant piece of filmmaking that will burrow a place for itself in your subconscious for a long time to come.