Written By Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung
When it comes to the horror/thriller genres, all bow down before the Koreans. From the elegant and subtle horror of The Handmaiden (2016), or the dreadfully-tragic suspense of The Wailing (2016), to the raw vengeance of Old Boy (2003) or the mindless gore-fest that is I Saw The Devil (2010), South Korean movies of the genre never ceases to surprise and offer a bare but detailed look at the human nature.
However, last year’s Parasite (2019), directed by auteur Bong Joon-ho, offers a cinematic experience unlike any other. Known for directing a superb monster movie The Host (2006), Memories of Murder (2003), and Snowpiercer (2013), among others, Bong has established his place among the most creative directors out there. He proves that one can still create outstanding set-pieces out of seemingly-mundane settings.
On the most basic level, Parasite tells the story of the Kim family and the Park family; the former is knee-deep in poverty and whose semi-basement house is located in a shabby neighborhood, while the other is at the very top of the social hierarchy. As the Kim family’s eldest son (Choi Woo-shik) is introduced to the job of an English tutor for the only daughter (Jung Ji-so) of the Park family, he conspires a scheme to have all members of the Kim family hired by the Parks in unrelated jobs. Judging from the title, it is easy to see who are the parasites here, but as layers and layers of the movie unravel, nothing is as simple as it may seem.
The core theme of Parasite is class struggle, one that cinema audiences are no strangers to. Even Bong himself has approached this theme in Snowpiercer, a post-apocalyptic action film about a never-stopping train in a snow-covered world. If in Snowpiercer, each of the horizontal train carriage houses a different class, with the lower class living at the far back and the rich at the very front, Parasite seeks to illustrate this vertically by using stairs. Arguably first used in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), stairs are a familiar method to display class differences – the rich live far above the ground in their high condominiums while the poor stay on the first floor, the two separated by row after row of stairs.
However, Bong takes this metaphor to a higher level by including stairs into the story itself and let them play a part as the story unravels. The Parks’ house is located at the top of a small hill, which is cut off from the rest of the neighborhood by a series of slopes and stairs. Their house has a basement, but only the helpers and housekeepers frequently make the descent. In fact, many scenes with the Parks include them ascending staircases, keep climbing up despite their already-high social position, while for the Kims it is always going down. Because of this, one can also argue that it is because of stairs that the Parks are unaware of the lives of those at the bottom, such as the Kim family – their refusal to make the effort to climb down those pairs of steps distances them from the likes of the Kim family, therefore making them also oblivious to the Kims’ series of schemes and scams happening right before their eyes. The fact that these class differences serve a reflection of the economic inequality in modern Korean society makes the problems depicted on-screen even more pressing.
Any review of Parasite would be incomplete without mentioning the craftsmanship of Bong Joon-ho, whom A.O. Scott, in an Oct. 2019 New York Times piece, has called “The filmmaker of the century.” Not only proving that he can write a compelling yet air-tight story, but director Bong also shows that he has more than enough talent to bring that story into vivid life. One can easily compare Parasite with Bong’s previous works. Its multi-genre plot resembles that of Mother (2009), while the bitter satire and social critique might be partly inherited from The Host and the more-popular Memories of Murder.
While Bong directs this movie with a precision that is worthy of Hitchcock, one cannot forget the outstanding efforts of editor Yang Jin-mo, whose work in the movie can be considered the music to Bong’s already-perfect lyrics. His edits silk-smoothen the transition between one scene and another, and every aspect of the movie – the cinematography, the camerawork, the soundtrack, and even the characters’ movements – have been synched together in flawless harmony, creating a tempo so perfectly calibrated that the viewers will feel like they are sliding through the movie instead of watching it. The viewing experience is, therefore, immersive, and although rhythm has always been Bong’s obsession throughout his entire career, Parasite raises the bar even for himself. Not to mention the ensemble cast’s magnificent performances, especially that of veteran actor Song Kang-ho (playing the patriarch of the Kim family), has lent a hand in turning Bong’s bold visions into a vibrant reality.
“There’s no need for a plan. You can’t go wrong with no plans,” Song Kang-ho’s character tells his son, two-thirds of the way into the movie. Bong Joon-ho did not plan Parasite to be a multi-award winner or a box-office smasher. Instead, he gave all he got into creating a movie that not only stands tall as an impressive cinematic achievement in its own right but also serves as a deeply humane look at a complex and socially-stratified society.
The Academy Award for Best Picture this year has finally found its rightful owner.