A refreshingly honest take on class dynamics, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite follows a deprived family as they try to con their way up the wealth ladder. In their cramped semi-basement apartment, the Kims struggle to put food on the table, wrestle with a stink-bug infestation, and watch as strangers urinate outside their window. When son Ki-Woo is offered a job tutoring a girl from the elite Park family, he sees an opportunity, and the Kims quickly find themselves spinning lies to climb up the wealth ladder. What starts off as a well-paced comedy takes a sudden dark turn, and the Kims are left more desperate than ever to retain their newly-acquired positions.
The film is flawless and thorough; director Bong Joon-ho seems to have thought of every detail, and is relentless in his portrayal of division between the Parks and the Kims. The characters are an important part of this: there is a sense of practicality, toughness and independence in the Kim family, which has grown out of necessity—the Parks, meanwhile, are mostly naive and vacant. Their lack of hardship means they are able to appear nice. Bong Joon-ho does not present us with miserly, cruel rich people, nor does he portray the poor as existing solely to be pitied; his characters have been profoundly affected by their lack of wealth.
The cast, therefore, had a significant challenge in front of them. The Kims had to be presented warts-and-all, yet remain sympathetic, or at the very least, understandable. On this front, they did an excellent job. Song Kang-ho, who played Kim family patriarch Ki-taek, and who is a favourite actor of Bong Joon-ho, expressively captured his character’s wavering pride and desperation. Park So-dam, who played daughter Ki-jeung, was also particularly good at giving a subtle charm to her direct, shrewd character. The characterisation of the Park family was also well-done, in particular Cho Yeo-jeong’s Yeon-kyo, a humorously-portrayed out-of-touch mother, who despite her cluelessness was not reduced to a flat stereotype.
The set design also emphasised the class distinction. The semi-basement home of the Kim family, a narrow-walled space set in a warm lighting, was the polar opposite to the wide and spacious house, which used a cool palette of off-whites and slate-greys. Where the basement flat was cluttered, the house was open-plan, minimalist and sterile. Most notably, the lighting is different: the Kims have one narrow, high window in their living room, which is their only source of natural light. The Parks, meanwhile, have entirely glass wall, and the film plays with the visual implications of this effectively (but to tell you how would spoil it).
There is symbolism and meaning to be found everywhere: the heavy rain from the thunderstorm, the insects that fly around the houses, even the contents of the Parks’ fridge (among them a collection of VOSS-brand water bottles and a sirloin steak). These details and the storyline as a whole comprise a sophisticated, innovative and entertaining take on class inequality that is truly incredible.
Parasite is in cinemas now.
Reviewed as Film of the Week, in partnership with Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh.