You have to give it to them: the Kims, the protagonists of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, are nothing if not resourceful. At the suggestion of a friend, the son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) pretends to be a student in order to get a position as the English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy couple, complete with photoshopped diploma. It doesn’t take long and he’s introduced his sister Ki-jeong (Park So-Dam) to the Park family and she takes on the job of being the youngest child’s art therapist. It’s amazing how you can fake expertise with little more than Google skills and a knack for improvisation. Before long, the entire family – Ki-woo, Ki-jeong and the parents Ki-taek (Bong stalwart Song Kang-ho) and Choong Sook (Jang Hye-jin) – are in the gainful employ of the Parks, one recommending the other, as that’s how the Parks work: they only trust employees that come highly recommended by another trusted employee. Oh, my father has a friend who used to work as a chauffeur. Oh, I know of this housekeeper who’d be just perfect for you. And the rich, friendly (if patronising), gullible Parks eat it all up. They get the domestic help they want and the Kims get the gainful employment they need, so it’s a win-win situation, right?
To cut a long story short: no. Parasite isn’t a story about the joys of sucessful social mobility. It isn’t a hymn to faking it till you make it. No, Bong’s latest is a caustic comedy that turns into a war movie – the war in question being that between the classes. And as another war story set in Korea used to say: war is hell.
Bong’s film, which won this year’s Palme d’Or, makes for an intriguing counterpoint to last year’s winner, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters. Here too, we have an East Asian family at the wrong end of the socioeconomic spectrum trying to make ends meet by means of questionable legality. Where Kore-eda always has affection for his protagonists, though, Bong is a satirist and his dramatis personae are drawn with Swiftian sharpness. The Kims may live in a bug-infested semi-basement flat and have to look up even at the drunk who urinates on the ground right next to their window every morning, but they quickly come to look down at the starry-eyed, gullible Parks and have no qualms about conning and seducing them – as well as getting drunk on their expensive whisky when the Parks are on a camping trip. The Parks, in turn, may pay fair wages, but they largely like the Kims because, as Mr Park believes, they know where the boundaries are and, Park mistakenly thinks, they know not to cross them. The Parks are happy to be friendly and generous towards the tutors, chauffeurs and housekeepers of this world as long as they know their place, even if they may all smell faintly but insistently of mouldy, dingy basements.
At a first glance, the title of Bong’s film seems to refer solely to the Kims as they latch on to the wealthy family and their luxuries and feed on them – but it cuts both ways: the Parks are helpless as children and incapable of navigating the world without being looked after and served by people that they look down on. Are they any less parasitic, just because they live in an expensive house, wear expensive clothes and bathe in expensive bathtubs? Morally, things become even more complicated as the Kims displace the original housekeeper, a woman who is no better off than they are economically, through a nasty ruse – and that housekeeper is revealed to be keeping a secret many times as outlandish as the lies that got the Kims their jobs in the first place. While Parasite may be concerned with class war, the first skirmishes aren’t between poor and rich but between those who are equally poor as each other, each trying to step on the other to get ahead.
Throughout his career, Bong has made films in various genres – thriller, horror, sci-fi – but from Memories of Murder via The Host to Snowpiercer and Okja the films have always had more than just a streak of sharp, and at times surreal, humour. In Parasite, though, more than in most of his films, it is fair to say that there comes a moment when the humour curdles into something sour. (As critic David Ehrlich writes in his review, Parasite “is laugh-out-loud funny until the moment it’s not”.) Nonetheless, the director avoids glib cynicism. The Kims are no saintly poor, they are not morally superior to the Parks. As Bertolt Brecht said, “Erst kommt das Essen, dann kommt die Moral” (which could be translated as “Grub first and only then morality”, though it loses its edge in the translation). When they get the opportunity, they kick down – literally. But Bong avoids false moral equivalence: even if neither of the two families comes off unblemished, Bong’s target is a system where social mobility is a cynical lie and rich and poor can only get along if the latter know their place and don’t get any ideas. The Kims may get their hands bloody first, but the likes of the Parks are only friendly and well-disposed towards them until they get it into their heads that they may want to clamber out of the basement. And for the system to keep working as it has, someone must always be stuck in the basement and content themselves with the scraps. It’s a bug-eat-bug world.