What’s so good about Parasite? Everything, really. It’s hard to find fault with the pitch-perfect ensemble acting of this Korean black comedy, the mischievous storyline and dialogue, the splendid visuals, set-pieces and score. Any disappointment will stem from the sky-high expectation that goes with a film that has swept all before it, the winner of 185 awards including Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for Bong Joon-ho. If you haven’t seen it yet, try to avoid the noise and fanfare. And stop reading this review now.
The film can be enjoyed on many levels, from penthouse to pavement (and below) – as a class-war satire/thriller, a supernatural horror, a ‘life-swap’ comedy or an expertly choreographed farce, with designer house as stage-set.
Parasite starts with the camera at ‘semi-basement’ level, looking up onto the street past what looks like a lampshade of pegged socks, hanging from the ceiling to dry. This is the cramped home of the Kim family, piled high with towers of empty pizza boxes, in which the toilet is squeezed onto a ledge next to the kitchen sink. Their home is a favoured spot for by passing drunks, who piss against the window. More welcome are the fumes of pest fumigators which reduce their cockroach infestation.
“We’re screwed,” says teenaged son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), bemoaning the loss of their ‘bounteous’ free wi-fi. His dad (Song Kan-ho) advises him to hold the phone high up and “stick it into every corner”. This is a plan that could also roughly describe how the Kims later insinuate themselves into the lives of an unsuspecting rich family: they aim high, front it out and engineer a sort of parasitical takeover.
When a friend offers Ki-woo the opportunity to replace him as tutor to a rich girl, he enlists the help of his cunning sister (Park So-dam) to create the necessary fake CV and qualifications. One thing leads to another and soon the Kims are all enjoying the Park family’s architect-designed home of as if it were their own.
At this point writer-director Bong shifts the tone from comedy to horror, as the Parks’ former housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) rings on the doorbell to announce that she has left something in the cellar …
Amidst the film’s broad satire – the swipes at the rich, the sly digs at American consumerism and child-centred parenting – some of the best scenes are those that mix things up, the mash-ups of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. There is an erotic, funny and cringeworthy sex scene. And the stylish slo-mo dowsing of a pissing drunk with a bucket of water, accompanied by choral singing – like a soft-porn shampoo advert directed by Sam Peckinpah.
What is it that separates the upper-class Parks from the lowly Kims? Certainly not intelligence, as the Kims run rings around their hosts. Finally, it comes down to smell. The Kims can fake it to make it, but they cannot wash the smells of the ‘semi-basement’ and subway out of their clothes. It is this smell that “crosses the line”, for Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), who twitches his nose in disgust and ultimately pays the price for his snootiness.