“We need solidarity!” shouts Jimmy Hoffa at a gathering of the Teamsters in The Irishman. “Solidarity! Solidarity!” Hoffa is, of course, talking about the idea of solidarity within a union; of brothers in arms, standing up to their powerful employers. In Parasite, no one screams it out, but it is there, the creeping feeling that the only antidote to the sickening reality displayed in the movie is mass class solidarity. How can some live in palatial opulence when so many live in abject poverty? How can it be that so many live in semi-basements while others live in veritable castles?
These questions are the driving force behind director Bong Joon-ho’s newest film, though it’s not so new anymore. The South Korean thriller went wide in October in the United States and Canada. So, why exactly am I reviewing it now, almost four months after its release? It just so happens that the Oscars are approaching on February 9, and Parasite was nominated for best picture, becoming the first Korean film to receive that honour.
This review is a plea to the Academy: Parasite is the best picture in a year of fantastic movies. And I really want it to win. I know I shouldn’t care about the Oscars—it’s an awards show where old white men decide what was best in the year of film, and they’re often laughably wrong (Crash over anything else, Driving Miss Daisy over Do the Right Thing, Shakespeare in Love winning due to a rapist’s schmoozing, and too many more to mention). Even so, it’d be amazing for a South Korean film with English subtitles to win best picture.
Bong Joon-ho himself said it best in a Vulture article when asked about his movie being the first Korean film to be nominated for best picture: “It’s a little strange, but it’s not a big deal. The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” He’s right, but a man can hope.
Parasite begins by depicting the life of the impoverished Kim family, consisting of the father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, daughter Ki-jeong, and son Ki-woo. The film is darkly comedic throughout, but it is especially so at the start; we see Ki-woo on the hunt for a Wi-Fi connection to steal, straining the phone upwards in every corner of the tiny semi-basement dwelling. We see the family folding pizza boxes by the hundreds to make a small amount of money, and Ki-taek stopping his son from closing the window when some sort of pesticide is being sprayed in the street. Free extermination, he says, as the spray seeps into the semi-basement and the family coughs through it and continues to fold.
The true power of Parasite lies in its use of juxtaposition, that greatest of film techniques. Think of Michael Corleone at the baptism of his godson intercut with the heads of the five families and Moe Greene being assassinated on his orders. In Parasite we see the splendor and ease with which the unimaginably wealthy go about their day, intercut with Ki-jeong sitting on top of a toilet seat jettisoning water as their semi-basement floods and they, and innumerable other families, are forced out onto the streets. It is a deft use of craft to sucker punch you with the polar opposite worlds our two main families inhabit.
The film is further elevated by the superb acting throughout, from the Kim family to the wealthy Park family, who we later meet when Ki-woo begins to tutor their daughter on the recommendation of a friend. Speaking again of the Oscars, it’s hard not to call it nakedly racist that none of the incredible performances by Asian actors in the film were recognized.
An especially noteworthy performance was given by Song Kang-ho in the role of the father Ki-taek. Throughout the film, we see that Ki-taek is unable to provide for his family as the patriarch, and it is his son’s actions that set the integration of the Kim and Park families into motion. Once things start to spiral out of control, Ki-taek plays beautifully his character’s descent into what is best described as a serene sort of madness; he listens and internalizes the Park family’s remarks on how he smells; he lays on a gym floor with his children after their semi-basement has been flooded; brooding, empty. It is there that his son asks him what the plan he had was to get them out of this situation. It was nothing, he replies. “With no plan, nothing can go wrong.”
This is a man who has internalized an unimaginable weight; that of his failure as a father. And even in the end, he still almost throws the car keys to the Park family’s father, in what would have been a craven act of submission. Ki-taek has been reduced to a shell of a man. And then, finally, he explodes.
The ending is also incredible. Showing this young man fantasizing about what he has to do to ever see his father again shows how hopelessly he is trapped within the capitalist system that has left his family and millions of other families in ruins. He is forced to play the game, and that’s the whole point—the game is fixed from the start. It’s so incredibly depressing, while perhaps at first glance being hopeful and optimistic, and that’s what makes it so powerful. Joon-ho ostensibly gives you that sense of hope, and then it hits you like a truck as you walk out of the theatre. You believed in the very thing the movie’s entire thematic concept has shown to be a horrifying problem. It’s the mark of great art that a slight twist of the head can turn the same scene from restorative to dystopic.
Perhaps the best thing about the masterpiece that is Parasite is how timely it is. Tension between rich and poor has existed since the dawn of civilization and many (Marx, Steinbeck, Mike Gold, Walter Greenwood, etc) have written extensively on the idea of the working vs. upper class and of a working class revolution. Yet, it feels fresher than ever. It’s even worse around the world, as we see depicted in the film, but we North Americans are also witnessing the rapid disappearance of the middle class—more so in the States. But we as Canadians are ever so concerned and ever so attached to our southern neighbours. It’s the exact issue that the elite and powerful don’t want people talking about because they also understand the history; they know that revolutions occur when people feel they have nothing to lose. And with the growing divide that exists in our world, maybe the micro plot that plays out in Parasite is more prescient than we may believe.