Parasite (2019)
Neon (U.S.A) | Madman Films (Australia)
Parasite is the latest from the celebrated South Korean director Bong Joon Ho. His other movies include Memories of Murder, Mother, Okja, and Snowpiercer. Some of South Korea’s finest actors such as Kang-ho Song, a frequent collaborator of Bong’s, star in this film alongside younger faces like So-dam Park and Woo-sik Choi. Parasite is about the Kims, a poor family living in a semi-basement. One day, the son (Woo-sik Choi) gets a rare offer, his affluent friend recommends him as an English tutor to the daughter of a wealthy family, the Parks. After he secures his spot as a tutor, the Kims start to meticulously take up jobs in other positions in the Park household. All the while, struggling to keep up the illusion of their roles and hide the fact that they are related.
Title Card for Parasite (2019) | Source: Art of the Title

Impostor's syndrome. Every scene throughout the film comes off naturally. This is most likely due to a loose shooting style that Bong employed. None of the dialogue feels forced. The best performance would go to So-dam Park as the daughter of the Kims, especially her scenes with the mother of the rich family (Yeo-jeong Jo). She seems so comfortable in her role as Jessica. And Yeo-jeong Jo does a fantastic job playing the clueless mother. Another thing about the acting is that all the Kim family actors essentially have to play a character within a character, à la Geoffrey Rush in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. This combined with many scenes where a character has to express their feelings with their body rather than their words is what makes the acting in this movie superb. Some people are scratching their heads at the fact that none of the actors were even nominated for an Oscar, but I guess Bong has to settle for a measly 4 Oscars…

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“Keep it focused!” As with his other stories, Bong plays the fine line between exaggeration and believability like a fiddle. His respect for the audience’s intelligence shines through, knowing exactly when to push certain buttons to make his ideas come across. The story is simple enough, the parasitic relationship between two families, but the way he subverts expectations of the audience generates a much more complex discussion among viewers about who is the real parasite in the story.

The mother of the Park family (Yeo-jeong Jo) (left) being manipulated by the daughter of the Kim family (So-dam Park) (right).
The mother of the Park family (Yeo-jeong Jo) (left) being manipulated by the daughter of the Kim family (So-dam Park) (right).

Knowing when to cross the line. Much like his predecessor Kurosawa, Bong is known for the detailed storyboards of his movies. Steven Yeun who worked with Bong on Okja has even likened his scripts to mangas. There are even releasing a graphic novel based on the storyboards of Parasite. Bong, using storyboards, crafts lasting images in the viewer's mind. He also tells the story in a very visual way, translating themes from the dialogue into clever shots. For instance, let’s take the scene where Ki-Woo is coming to the Park house for the first time. He is welcomed by the maid, but they both find out that the mother that is supposed to be meeting Ki-Woo is asleep in her backyard. Workers “crossing the line” is commonly discussed by the Parks throughout the movie. When the maid wakes up mother Park, she visually crosses a line (the seam between two windows) to wake her up. There are many of these instances throughout the film to drive the point home that it’s the Parks who set the boundaries.

The maid (Jeong-eun Lee) waking up the sleeping Park mother (Yeo-jeong Jo).

To laugh or to cry. Parasite is filled with Bong’s typical dark humor. The dialogue is sharp and natural, again due to the shooting style that was employed. The movie also has many of Bong’s subtler jokes like the relatively young actor Woo-sik Choi giving acting advice to Kang-ho Song, one of South Korea’s superstar actors. The chance to experience humor from a different culture is also refreshing.

Inspirations. There were two main inspirations for Parasite. The first is The Housemaid (1960), a thriller directed by Kim Ki-young. This movie gained a cult following in the 1990s, Bong’s generation. Not only is the story of Parasite reminiscent of The Housemaid, but also its use of stairs. In the 1960s, stairs were a true display of wealth in South Korea, it meant that you could afford a house with a second floor. In Parasite, stairs are used to symbolize the ascension or the sinking of a character on the social ladder. The second movie that inspired Bong when making Parasite was High and Low (1963), directed by Akira Kurosawa. The stories aren’t all that similar, but Parasite’s use of height to represent social status and smell to represent poverty comes right from Kurosawa.

Parasite plays the fine line between thriller, horror, comedy, and drama with a little sprinkle of the heist genre. This ability to stand on the shoulders of past greats, taking inspiration from them, and crafting a story while subverting existing genres is Bong’s domain; this is how he creates unique stories. Parasite pays respect to the history of Korean cinema while resonating with many around the world, and it is a welcome end-note to Korea’s first century of cinema.

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