Ferocious Comic Thriller ‘Parasite’ by Bong Joon-ho Is One of the Best Films of the Year
The South Korean auteur has created another classic in this genre-bending masterpiece. Warning: Contains spoilers.
Director Bong Joon-ho’s latest film, Parasite, reveals itself like a jigsaw puzzle: one tantalizing piece at a time.
It tempts us to make assumptions, categorize, and assign meaning to what we think we see—to imagine we know where this is going—and then it shape-shifts.
The South Korean auteur’s films are known for their transmutative properties, weaving between genres and cinematic stylings at will. Parasite is the culmination of his abilities; it morphs from thriller to slapstick to black comedy to horror with both playful ease and tightly orchestrated precision. It’s a movie only Bong could have made: ferocious, bracingly critical of the absurdities of late-stage capitalism, yet fun and never priggish. It’s one of the best films of the year.
Parasite offers mirrored images of two families: the ultra-wealthy Park clan and the destitute Kims, each composed of a father, mother, daughter, and son. Where the Parks reside in a sleek and secure fortress designed by a name-brand architect, the Kims live in a cluttered, bug-infested semi-basement apartment where their view of the street (through a thin slit of a window) frequently includes a drunkard pissing. The Kims are a resourceful and industrious bunch, but gig after gig has dried up, leaving them folding pizza boxes for pennies.
By the time we see son Ki-woo (played by Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) chase down free Wi-fi signals around the apartment, it’s clear why they might reach for any income opportunity available. Ki-woo stumbles on the perfect one: as an English tutor for the Park family’s teen daughter, Da-hye. His first visit to the Park’s place stings with wonder and shock; his eyes eat up the verdant backyard, the window spanning an entire wall, the spotless floors and high ceilings. Even the housekeeper wears clothing so prim he mistakes her for the owner.
Ki-woo’s shock wears off quickly enough, though, for him to start leveraging what he learns about the Parks to benefit his own family. One off-handed mention of their troubled youngest son’s need for an “art therapist,” and Ki-woo successfully installs his sister (whom he pretends to know only as a distant cousin’s classmate) as another Kim on the Park family’s payroll. No detail proves too small—from their housekeeper’s peach allergy to the driver’s generosity—nor method too depraved for the Kim family to scam their way into four separate streams of Park fortune-derived income.
Yet the fact remains: the goal of this giddy, wild heist isn’t diamonds or gold. It’s just the opportunity to work for a living wage.
“There’s a lot of fraud and crimes in the film, but I think it’s really a representation of all of us who are trying to adapt to a changing environment,” actor Song Kang-ho, who plays Kim family patriarch Ki-taek, tells The Daily Beast through a translator. “If you look at the family in the film, they really strive to achieve that.”
Song is sitting (dressed impeccably in a dark turtleneck, blazer, and leather loafers) across from his screen counterpart’s son, 29-year-old actor Choi Woo-shik, who nods and speaks in English: “They are facing economic problems, but that doesn’t make you less of a person. Our family is a really loving family. We care about each other, just as Park’s family does.”
Song watches as Choi talks, a slow smile forming. “You sound so intelligent,” he quips in Korean, drawing roars of laughter from his onscreen daughter, 28-year-old Park So-dam, sitting to his left. Choi pushes up a pair of gold-rimmed frames, pretending to be flattered: “It’s the glasses.”
The three are gathered in a New York hotel room the week of Parasite’s U.S. release, their family dynamic still firmly intact. (The Kims are rowdier, more honest with one another, and closer than the Parks, though Bong and co-screenwriter Jin Won Han staunchly resist villainizing or martyring either family.) Laughter now aside, Park adds to the Kim family’s perspective: “It wasn’t so much about ‘We don’t have it and we want that,’” she says of how they view wealth. “It’s more that we had a different starting point.”
At the height of their ambition, the Kim family dreams of having in-laws like the Parks. Asking favors, maybe staying over. Enjoying the snacks, alcohol, and endless sunlight that pours into the garden. (They take full advantage of a weekend when the Parks are out of town.) But the secrets they’ve kept become harder to sustain with the revelation of another, uglier hidden cost of wealth—one that sends the film careening toward an inevitable eruption of violence.
Like the rest of the film, the scene is best experienced knowing as little as possible going in. If you haven’t yet seen Parasite, do that first—it’s in theaters today—then come back once you’ve pieced yourself back together.
At once both devastating and illuminating, Parasite’s blood-splattered finale is the kind you can neither predict nor forget.
Geun-se, husband to the Parks’ original housekeeper and the personified “ghost” of human labor, is revealed to have been living in a sunless concrete bunker under the family home for years. He worships the Park family patriarch, flashes Morse code thank-yous to the family upstairs, and barks the English word “respect!” at magazine cutouts of the glamorous Mr. Park. Geun-se and his wife, Moon-gwang, learn the Kims’ secret—that they are related, lied to get Moon-gwang fired, and that a simple text to the Parks could doom them—through no fault of their own: Ki-woo blurts out “dad” when addressing Ki-taek in front of them.
The Kim family’s violent scramble to suppress the fallout (and keep their jobs) leads to all-out war. The Parks arrange a birthday party outside in the garden, ordering the tension-wracked Kims—who are here on their day off—from one whim to the next.
Then Bong snaps his puzzle together—before he smashes it to shreds as Ki-taek snaps in a scene of bloody carnage.
“I think the essential reason that character snapped is not really the income difference between the wealthy and poor,” says Song. “It actually has to do with human dignity. The collapse of it leads the character to take this extreme measure.” The film, as he sees it, is about the recovery of that dignity, with Ki-taek’s act of desperation his final attempt. “The characters in the film have a lot of antagonistic feelings toward each other.” But in his estimation, “the problem really lies in what they held at their hearts.”
Parasite’s script alone did not paint a specific “image” of how the scene would unfold, Choi and Song remember. Still, the actors understood the tension that coils until it snaps, and the “panic” and “chaos” that would break loose. “It was crazy,” Choi remembers. “People were on edge, ’cause it was really one of our most difficult scenes to shoot. There were so many people there and so much movement in front of the camera.”
Park remembers Bong’s instructions to her for the scene: “He didn’t want Ki-jung to look like she was going to die,” she laughs. “He wanted that to not be foreseen. So I was asked to just say anything that came to mind. I had to think about how I can be stabbed in the heart but not look like this is my dying will. That was a difficult request to fulfill.”
Bong storyboarded Parasite himself; his sketches resemble the pages of a comic book, with detailed indications of movement, dialogue, and camera placement. The fictional Park family’s house, Park remembers, “was based on the storyboard, not the other way around, to the point that the art director was saying this kind of architecture wouldn’t work for a real house.” With Bong’s storyboards as “the backbone of the film,” actors enjoyed a certain flexibility: “It was actually much more fun than my other experiences,” she says, “because it allowed me more freedom. I knew exactly where my boundaries were but could also play around within the scene.”
Woo-shik, who has worked with Bong twice (first on Okja), confesses to being “really nervous” the second time around, too. “But he’s one of those guys who makes the atmosphere really comfortable. He’s like a loving teddy bear,” he says with a smile. “On set, we could just do anything. He didn’t give us any limitations about where we could act or move. It was just a really fun and comfortable, loving set.”
But it’s Song, 52, who has the most intimate creative partnership with “Director Bong,” stretching back to their first onscreen collaboration in 2003, Memories of Murder. Bong speaks often and glowingly about his trust in Song’s abilities and feeling emboldened to take risks in the films they make together. When Parasite won the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize (an overdue first for a South Korean film), Song was at his side—the director even knelt before Song at a photo call on the red carpet, playfully offering his muse the Palme d’Or.
“There is no significant change ever since I started working with him more than 20 years ago,” Song says, chuckling a bit at the word “muse.” “There’s a lot of respect between us, a lot of expectations, and I always feel a sense of thrill as I look forward to working with him.”
Between Memories of Murder and Parasite, Song has acted the part of the boisterous, likable everyman in Bong’s allegorical kaiju movie The Host (2006) and in the sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer (2013). “I think over the years, Bong has had this very sharp and perceptive view of life itself,” Song adds. “And you can really see the evolution of that in this movie. It’s the crystallization of all those efforts. If you look at what he’s done so far, I do think it’s very admirable, and I do want to pay my respect to his talent.”
As if possessed by the English word leaving his translator’s mouth, Song sits up suddenly and barks “RESPECT!”, relishing the reaction he detonates in the room. It’s not quite the chaos of a bloody finale exposing the dehumanization at the heart of capitalism. But it’s something close.