Judging by the taste of A-list film festivals juries, Asian cinema is taking the lead on the world scale. Last year at Cannes, two of the most lauded films were Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters” by Hirokazu Koreeda and “Burning” by Lee Chang-dong. Interestingly, both were examining class conflict in a divided society with deep rifts between the haves and have-nots. There are obvious parallels to be drawn between this year’s Palme laureate, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” and both of the aforementioned films so we could debate on a trend of sorts, where the approach of art-house drama or more genre-oriented is just a matter of taste. We were lucky enough to finally catch the “Parasite” (no pun intended, or just a little a bit…) at Sarajevo’s impressive and impressively full open-air stage.
Like in “Shoplifters,” here we also have a family (only this time biological) of four (mom, dad and their adult son and daughter) living on the fringes of society in a basement apartment where the only window is being regularly pissed on by a passing drunk. Their current gig is folding pizza boxes for pocket money and their favourite past-time is searching for an open Wi-Fi signal that could be their lifeline for finding more and better gigs in a harsh economy. However, their luck is about to change when the son’s student friend comes with the “lucky charm” in the form of a large stone and the news that he is leaving the country and willing to let his English tutoring gig to him.
So, Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), who has already pulled entrance exam scams for the college kids, gets his job teaching the insecure teenage girl from a rich family Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), and an anglicized name Kevin to go with it. When he meets her younger brother Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun) who might be somewhere on the spectrum, he “accidentally” thinks of “a friend of a friend” named Jessica who is an exclusive art therapist. Jessica is, of course, his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam), a skilled Photoshop forger and a fast learner who gets to impress the Park family matriarch, nice but hopelessly gullible Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong), with one night of internet studying. Soon enough, the Kim family kids pull the scam to get their parents, father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) employed at the Parks’ household as a driver and a housemaid respectively.
With such a simple-minded mother and largely absent successful businessman of a father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), the Parks stand no chance against our very sympathetic infiltrators. Well, until one rainy night when the rich family takes the camping trip, the old housemaid returns to the house to “pick something up” and the secret about something or somebody being locked in the basement of a modern posh villa comes to light…
Dramaturgically speaking, every detail is in place and all of them get a pay-off that is usually brilliant thanks to the airtight script penned by the director and his “Okja” assistant director Han Jin-won. Countless tomes of theoretical analysis and anthropological studies of class system could be written just about the smell as the source of the plot mechanics, the use of elements, the topography of the locations used or the use of high culture alone. Remarks like Mr Park’s theory about the people riding the metro that all wear the same odour, Mr Kim’s honest piece of wisdom that he would be as nice as the Parks if he were born to be rich or the impersonation of a North Korean state television speaker are both being played for laughs, but also providing a deeper insight about the patterns of thinking differing between the classes. Also, it is worth noting that the script is quite nuanced in the terms of treatment of the characters from both sides of the social specter – even though we can cheer for the Kims while they are “relieving” the rich from the burden of their money, we are well aware that their crime is not a victimless one, as they are ruthlessly and efficiently removing the common, working-class people that find themselves on their way, while we can also feel some sympathy for the Parks because they are actually nice and friendly people.
Direction-wise, Bong Joon-ho has already proven a master, both as a craftsman on the level of Hitchcock and Spielberg. Here, he relies especially on the nerve-wracking tension builds up towards the bloody climax near the end, and as a creative genius ready to turn the genre conventions around and to make some of his own in order to deliver a one-of-a-kind film. His transitions from genre to genre, covering basically everything from pitch-black, but still hilarious comedy to classical literature level of tragedy (there are some nods to Dostoyevski and Kafka weaved into the film’s coda), with a nail-biting chiller and the occasional outbursts of perfectly choreographed gory violence in between.
But, actually, we could expect all that from a man who gave us the Korean New Wave genre-defining pleasures like “Memories of a Murder,” “The Host” and “Mother,” as well as the passionate social parables in his international career titles “Snowpiercer” and “Okja.” In “Parasite” he takes the chosen elements from both worlds and combines them to perfection, making it his most complex and complete, if not even his best film of the career.
Wonderfully shot by Hong Kyung-pyo, with whom Bong has already worked on “Mother” and “Snowpiercer” and who shot the recent highlights of Korean cinema, like “Burning” and “The Wailing,” with a classical, almost monumental score composed by Jung Jae-il who worked also on “Okja,” precisely edited by a newcomer Yang Yin-mo and with a cast consisting of the hand-picked stars of Korean cinema, both established and rising, “Parasite” is an absolute masterpiece of a film whose significance transcends the level of just cinema.