In satirical thriller 'Parasite', Bong Joon-ho unfolds class divide splendidly


"You know what kind of plan does not fail? No plan, no plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned."

A gloomy conversation between a father and son whose lives are affected by a sudden twist of fate overnight captures the very essence of the 2019 South Korean black comedy thriller 'Gisaengchung,' known outside the Korean peninsula as Parasite.

Recipient of the Palme d'Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, the movie is directed by Bong Joon-ho, who has previously given us spellbinding masterpieces such as 'The Host' (2006), 'Snowpiercer' (2013) and 'Okja' (2017). It had recently won at the Golden Globes for the Best Foreign Language Film, and the Screen Actors Guild Award, considered as a precursor to the Academy Awards.

The story

The movie begins in a basement apartment in a poor suburb in Seoul, where we are introduced to the Kim family, who work temporary, low-paying jobs to keep the fire burning at home. The unambitious family of four consisting of a father, mother and their daughter and son, begins their typical day scanning for free WiFi signals, and folding pizza boxes for sustenance.

This goes on until one fateful day, a friend of Ki-woo, the son, arrives home with an ornamental rock or scholar’s stone as a gift to the family. And all of a sudden, as though luck would have it, their lives change for the better. Ki-woo fakes a college degree certificate to enter into an opulent Korean home owned by the Park family of four, to coach their daughter in English, and earns a new name called Kevin.

He soon learns that the younger one was a disturbed little boy who showed an affinity in the arts. Ki-woo so suggests to an unsuspecting Mrs. Park, a prominent arts tutor, who could help the boy with his craft. The family is then introduced to Jessica, who is actually his younger sister Ki-Jung. This modus operandi seemed to work with a bit of effort by the Kims, and they slowly infiltrate into the Parks household by a string of carefully orchestrated deceptions.

The father, Ki-Taek then assumes a role as the family’s chauffeur, after the previous driver is quietly fired for a sexual allegation levelled against him. The Parks are then made to believe that their housekeeper has tuberculosis. So Chung-sook, mother, and the last of Kims steps in, to don her role.

They bask in the glory of their newfound rise in social status and revel in the luxury of the palatial bungalow when the owners leave for a short vacation. The happiness is short-lived when the previously fired housekeeper returns to 'pick up' something that she had left off before moving out. In the other part of town, the Park family has decided to cancel their field trip on short notice as there is a heavy downpour throughout the country.

All of this leaves the Kims who have now assumed ownership of the mansion, scrambling to take cover, with the exception of Chung-sook who is the housekeeper. The father, son, and daughter sneak out and run through the city back to their impoverished suburb. The melodrama, dwelling in dark humour and slow-paced locomotion until this point, shifts its pace to a satirical thriller that finishes off with bewilderment and a bit of gore.

Skilful picturisation

Bong Joon-ho's 132-minute thriller has been regarded as a masterclass in film making and had received worldwide acclaim ever since its initial release in May 2019. The wealth and class divide has been heavily emphasised in his work, by implementing a mechanism of blunt storytelling and camerawork, maintaining conscientious consistency throughout.

The movie opens at the ground level in an impoverished Seoul suburb and the camera slowly pans downwards into a subsurface basement home, dimly lit and deprived of sunlight. Now the Park's million-dollar mansion is situated atop a hill, presumably at the highest point in town, with the abundance of light seething through its elegant facade. Scenes within the manor are characterized by expansive, wide-angled shots compared to the tight ones in the cramped apartments that puts to perspective the correlation between area and abundance.

Symbolism aplenty

The director has used darkness and light to signify poverty and wealth, while the difference in class and social standing is depicted by the castle on the hill, in retrospect to the impoverished apartments situated in the lowest part of the town. As the Kims sneak out from the mansion, they cascade down onto the streets from the posh uphill neighbourhood and then catch the subway, moving further down into their own suburb. The head of the Parks family also reminds those who serve him that nobody should 'cross the line.'

The demarcation between the different classes is further emphasised in the movie where subtle lines have been drawn between individuals in the form of window panes, home decor, and other props. The director has religiously maintained this consistency in the movie taking cues from his earlier outing in 'Snowpiercer' where good versus evil has been picturised directionally as left versus right.

Critics have also termed some sequences within the movie as art pieces, where carefully stitched montages are sequentially manipulated to the rhythm of Handel's classical, 'Rodelinda' which in itself is a subtle warning to the repercussions the family will have to face for their actions. A critic has claimed the cut sequences used in the movie as 'conciseness worthy of Hitchcock.'

Bong Joon-ho also relays ideas across through schmancy metaphors, be it a stairwell that portrays upward and downward mobility between socio-economic levels, the torrential rains that are only a minor issue to the rich, living on the higher echelons, while the consequent floods effectively displaces whole families down below, or the very ornamental stone intended to bring prosperity leading everything that determines the fate of the Kims. Visual poetry fills every scene in this Korean masterpiece.

Similar earlier outings

The director has also tried to convey the impacts of climate change and the drastic losses to life and property in its aftermath. His 2017 adventure film 'Okja' dealt with the hazards of industrial agriculture and the mistreatment of livestock. In 'Snowpiercer', a world is on the brink of destruction after failed attempts to reverse the effects of climate change.

'The Host', released in 2006, discusses the impacts of dumping toxic waste into a river that runs through the middle of Seoul. He gives a clear indication that the poor are left devastated by major issues like climate change and rise in sea levels, while the rich are the least affected.

Korean Cinema outside the Peninsula

'Parasite' incidentally coincided with the celebration of 100 years of Korean Cinema, which is today, the 5th largest industry in terms of the number of box-office admissions. But only a fraction of its movies travel beyond the Peninsula, as did 'Train to Busan,' 'Man from Nowhere' or 'Snowpiercer', which had raked in below-average sales in the US.

In his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes Joon-ho had a valid statement to make. "Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films," he had said.

The movie is regarded as a strong contender in the Academy Awards race this year with nominations in 5 categories besides Best Foreign Language Film, and battles with '1917' for Best Picture.

'Parasite' is a portrayal of class struggle that provides answers to why men and women fall into a vicious cycle of deprivation that seemingly has no end.

"I had tried to express a sentiment specific to Korean culture, .. (but) all the responses from different audiences were pretty much the same; especially as we all live in the same country called 'Capitalism'," Bong Joon-ho says in a YouTube interview.

Capitalism has always succeeded in keeping all the different ranks of a society divided within their own realms. As the movie climaxes, one begins to wonder who the real parasites are – whether the poor trying every trick in the book to escape from destitution or the rich and the powerful feeding on the blood and toil of the poor, to govern from their huge fortified mansions.

'Parasite' is now playing across select theatres in India, on Amazon Prime, and wherever you source your content from.