The class dynamics exploited in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, certainly the movie of the year regardless of what you think about it, gives rise at first to comedy of the most uncomfortable kind. This has always been Bong’s strong point, though when he’s off his game it’s usually because he has trouble maintaining his comic tone. In movies like Okja and Snowpiercer, which belong to sci-fi or fantasy genres, keeping that tone wasn’t a big problem, though the lack of consistency did make those films feel less important by the end than the way they felt at the beginning. Because Parasite takes place in a relatively realistic social setting the tone is especially important.
The Kim family lives in a basement apartment whose specific structural disadvantages—the toilet is situated on a rise that requires scrambling up a wall—are obviously funny by design. The Kims are poor and Bong doesn’t have to get too deeply into their situation to make that apparent. The father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), hasn’t had a regular job since the recession, and so the whole family, mother (Chang Hyae-jin), college age son (Choi Woo-shik), and teenage daughter (Park So-dam), do piece work for a local pizza franchise, and not particularly well, adding to their misery only slightly but goosing the laughs. It’s not that poor people are funny, but they are pathetic. They are, in fact, the definition of the word “pathetic,” and that seems to be Bong’s point. When you’re as desperate as the Kims, you become natively clever or you die.
The cleverness is inculcated in the children. The son, Ki-woo, is smart enough to go to college, but he has no money. One day an old high school pal who is attending college offers him a deal. He wants to go to the U.S. for a semester, but he’s got a choice gig as a tutor to a teenage girl from a rich family. He obviously feels something for this girl and doesn’t trust his similarly well-off classmates to be alone with her, so he asks Ki-woo if he’ll sub for him while he’s away. Ki-woo naturally wonders how he, a mere high school graduate, is going to be accepted as a tutor, and the friend says, just lie. Lying is, of course, the biggest challenge to the clever, and Ki-woo takes to it like a duck to water. He interviews at the Park family’s Bauhaus-magnificent home and the mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) is taken in by the subterfuge. It is almost too easy, in fact, and thus the stage is set for an insidious home invasion by the entire Kim family. The daughter, Da-hye, gets hired as an art tutor to the Park’s ADHD-addled elementary school-age son. The elder Kim is soon the Parks’ trusted chauffeur. And the mother, through some particularly nasty sleight-of-hand, is installed as the new housekeeper. The Parks do not know these people are related to one another, and it’s this secret that keeps the first half of the movie humming with comic potential and which Bong quickly turns on its head. The second half is still a comedy, but it’s the darkest comedy you will probably ever see.
Bong has always been a meticulous storyteller, but while the tale he spins here is a doozy, he does occasionally fall victim to impatience, resorting to deus ex machina devices and weird turns of slapstick just to get over speed bumps in the exposition, but even as the Kims’ desperation shifts to sly victory that is quickly pulled from under them by circumstances no one could have foreseen, the comic tone never flags. The laughs are couched in discomfort, but they’re no less heartfelt, since the class dynamics at play never change and, as Bong implies, never will. He’s not interested in giving the rich their comeuppance. If anything, he prosecutes the Kims for thinking they could get away with their lies, but he still thinks they have a right to their dreams. If he’s less solicitous to the Parks it’s not because he denigrates their wealth and ease, but rather that wealth and ease has made them uninteresting. The only reason the Kims can take advantage of them is that they have become numb to their situation. The tragedies (there is more than one) that unfold in the second half of the movie have as much to do with the spiritual ennui of the comfortable classes as they do with the grasping neediness of the uncomfortable classes. Bong isn’t a sociologist. He’s a master filmmaker who knows how to use what the audience knows to get them to respond to his stories, which in this case is a whopper.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068). Opens wide on January 10.
Parasite home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2019 CJ ENM Corporation, Barunson E&A