A Parasite of Society: Bong Joonho returns with Parasite
review by Gabriela Delgado Hinojosa
From calling the Oscars a ‘local’ event to fighting with former Hollywood juggernaut Harvey Weinstein for the right to keep his authorial essence, writer-director Bong Joonho has had his fair share of international conflicts when it comes to producing his critically-acclaimed movies. He returns after a two-year absence with Parasite (2019), a film festival favourite that guarantees a look into Korea’s society through Bong’s experienced dark lenses.
This past Saturday, September 28, I took the LRT to Landmark Cinemas 9 City Centre where the Edmonton International Film Festival (EIFF) was being held, and joined an incredibly long line to see Parasite on the silver screen. After picking up a programme booklet, I hastily took my seat in between many other anxious attendees in the packed room. It was so full, in fact, that once every seat was filled the nervous EIFF staff had no other option but to deny entry to the few people that had been at the end of the line. While they promised to give them tickets for the second screening of Parasite on October 4th, I silently thanked every deity possible that I’d had the hindsight to arrive thirty minutes before the start of the movie.
I’ve long been a fan of Korean popular and traditional culture, an interest that I’ve fostered since high school through the diverse music groups and soap operas (called ‘dramas’) that the Asian country has to offer. These, in particular, have expanded into the Western world over the last twenty years through a phenomenon known as Hallyu or the Korean wave. It is a process that has been exposed to mainstream media through K-Pop acts such as BTS and Blackpink, and through the cinema of fabulous directors such as Lee Changdong, Park Chanwook and Bong Joonho.
I became interested in East Asian filmmaking after watching a series of Korean films, such as Oldboy (2003) and Joint Security Area (2000). Bong Joonho’s 2009 masterpiece Mother, in particular, left an impulsive, frustrated imprint in my mind: a film about a mother and a son that started like any other everyday drama and rapidly escalated into a murder mystery with an open ending.
Bong, who is probably best known to the western public as the directorial mastermind behind English-language hits Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017), made a comeback this past May to Korean-language cinema with Parasite, a dark comedy that promised to bring more of Bong’s signature style to theatres all over the world. It won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival by unanimous vote, a first since Blue is the Warmest Colour was granted the award in 2013, and has recently become South Korea’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. It is scheduled for general release on October 25.
Parasite starts as a comedy that comments on the state of the modern lower-class Korean family. Bong enlists frequent collaborator and veteran actor Song Kangho (who also starred in Bong’s popular 2003 crime drama Memories of Murder andsci-fis The Host and Snowpiercer) to play the role of the patriarch of the Kim family. Actors Jang Hyejin, Choi Wooshik and Park Sodam complete the main cast.
The opening scene, focusing on the efforts of the Kims to have a decent lifestyle, brought plenty of laughs from the audience and created a bond with the characters that made them likeable, despite their more indefensible actions later on in the story. A friend of the eldest son finds him a job as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy family, and soon after, through many hilarious (and carefully planned) “mishaps”, the entire family finds itself employed by the much richer and gullible Parks.
Bong is also smart enough to trust the audience to understand that he is not just entertaining, but also communicating. His films always have a sociological aspect to them, a commentary on Korean society created by exposing the darkness behind the façades. It’s the Kim family versus the Parks, the lower class and the upper class, the parasites and the beings they are leeching from. Bong explores how necessity rids humanity of their dignity and pushes them to become parasites as a method of survival.
The Kims, though extremely poor, are incredibly street smart, and ruthless in their methods to infiltrate the Parks’ home and earn their trust. The Parks, on the other hand, are a critique of the state of dissociation the rich have from the rest. As one of the characters proposes through brilliant dialogue, they are so wealthy that they can’t help but be nice — unlike the rest.
When tragedy strikes in the last few minutes of the film I didn’t feel cheated or wronged, just eerily fascinated by Bong’s writing. Bong is known for his bending of the rules: his mixing of genres in such a subtle, expert way that they don’t clash with one another in the narrative nor cinematography. His writing is seamless, allowing comedy to become drama without betraying the message of the film. There are hints here and there of what’s to come, dropped in by Bong as puzzle pieces that the audience must collect throughout the story.
The film was a rollercoaster of emotions for me and many others in the audience, as we all gasped and laughed. As the film got progressively darker and darker most of us hung at the edge of our seats, thoroughly hypnotized by the twists that kept and kept coming after the first half of the story.
Once the credits appeared on screen, most of the audience erupted in applause and cheers, and I certainly was one of them. I stayed seated for a few moments while the room cleared and gathered my thoughts. Parasite was probably the best film I’d seen in years. It is a careful blend of comedy and drama, with marvellous acting and writing that will keep anyone entertained throughout the whole 132 minutes of its runtime.
There’s not a single boring moment. Bong is efficient with his pacing, and keeps the stakes sky high as the characters develop. It is an invitation to experience the ugly side of South Korea’s current economic situation, a look behind the glamorous, shiny exterior that we see so often on TV or the internet nowadays; but it is also an incredibly well-crafted film that I would recommend to anyone.
Release date: October 25, 2019
Running Time: 2h 13m