There is no shortage of films that depict the injustice of social inequality but originality is scarce. With a large proportion of its population below the poverty line, it is noteworthy that a filmmaker from South Korea has produced a work that has attracted almost universal acclaim. Parasite (2019)generates a great deal of conversation but be warned: it is not a film for everyone, especially those averse to gory endings.
If you step back from the story’s twists and turns, the narrative premise is simple. A family of petty crooks living in abject poverty get lucky as, one by one, each tricks their way into being employed by the same heartlessly wealthy family in roles like tutor, driver, and housekeeper. The gullible family is easy to deceive, while the crooks manufacture various scenarios to their own advantage. The occupation of the luxurious home by the crooks adds a new meaning to the concept of home invasion. However, the plan comes un-stuck when they find a secret dungeon that leads to horrific consequences.
The film takes too much time in developing the central premise and various sub-plots, and more descriptive prose could be offered here about what actually happens. But that is not the point of the film. Director Joon-ho Bong paints an intricate portrait of the normalisation of poverty and class privilege, with both sets of family never questioning their place in South Korea’s social order. This acceptance and its destructiveness of the human spirit makes change impossible and condemns Korean society to moral bankruptcy.
There is more to this film than political discourse. As a black comedy, it is sprinkled with funny although improbable moments and the filming style expresses the polemic in obvious ways. Juxtaposing the world occupied by a smelly cramped underclass with the opulent world of the rich is low-hanging fruit. One can also find elements of magical fantasy, as it requires an unequivocal suspension of disbelief to accept that a family of losers can so easily dupe a family of high achievers. The acting tends towards wooden, and it is difficult to warm to any particular character. The film’s climax offers little other than an ambivalent balance between hope and nihilism, leaving viewers to decide which family are the parasites.
For many, the critical pendulum swings towards the ‘masterpiece’ label. But it is perhaps closer to reality to describe this as an original, engaging, and disturbing tale of endemic class tension, oppression, and helplessness. Although tenuous, the message has universal relevance.
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Stars: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo