A new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda is always a good reason to look up and take note. Ever since I first saw one of his films, the witty, inventive After Life (1998), the gentle giant of Japanese cinema has not disappointed me. Not all of his films are equally strong, but especially after his Cannes-winning Shoplifters (2017), I was sure I’d want to be there to see his latest at the cinema.
However, I would not have expected the new Kore-eda to be a thoroughly French éclair of a film starring Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche.
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.
What makes a family real? Is it genes? Are blood relatives the only real kind of family? Or is family something that is chosen, committed to and reaffirmed every day? Can family begin as a matter of convenience, even a decision taken for economic reasons, can it be based on a lie – and then change into something else when you’re not paying attention?