‘Parasite’: South Korean Master Bong Joon-ho’s Vicious Satire of the Wealthy Wins Over Cannes

By Richard Porton
CJ Entertainment

CANNES, France—The title of Bong Joon-ho’s new film Parasite, which premiered in competition to great acclaim at Cannes on Tuesday, is deliberately misleading. As Bong himself realizes, most audiences will probably assume from the title that Parasite shares an affinity with his hit horror film, The Host, which deployed B-movie conventions to underline the devastation of the environment.

Instead, Parasite, which is full of outlandish bleak humor, is an absurdist parable that explores the gap between the wealthy and the poor, who survive on the margins of prosperity in contemporary South Korea. Bong’s movie is the second film in competition at Cannes this year to explore the perils of the modern “gig economy,” which forces many of the most vulnerable members of society to become poorly-paid temp workers without access to benefits.

But while Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, which premiered in competition last week, assails Britain’s version of the gig economy from a traditionally realist perspective, Parasite combines the social analysis of Maxim Gorky’s famous early-20th century play The Lower Depths with a tale of a family salivating at the privilege of their wealthy employers that summons up some of Luis Buňuel’s most outrageous surreal fantasies.

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The film explores how a clan of grifters infiltrate the inner sanctum of a wealthy family. As the film begins, Ki-taek (played by Bong Joon-ho regular Song Kang-ho) and his family, who live in a dank, depressing basement in a working-class neighborhood, struggle to sign on illicitly to their neighbor’s Wi-Fi signal. Although Ki-taek’s wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), a former track and field medalist, yearns for her husband to break out of the cycle of poverty by any means possible, their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) proves to be the family’s most resourceful scam artist.

Through a friend’s connections, Ki-woo, who has failed his university exams, forges a diploma and earns a position as a tutor to the pretty but insecure daughter of the fabulously wealthy, but clueless, Park family. Mr. Park (Lee Sun- kyun), the family patriarch who toils as a CEO of an IT firm, is rarely home and his sweet-tempered—but neurotic—wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) is in charge of their children’s education while indulging their every whim. Soon, Ki-woo’s sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) gets in on the action and Photoshops a phony diploma that enables her to take on the job of art tutor for Da-song (Jung Hyeon- jun), the Park’s intelligent, but hopelessly spoiled, young son.

Careful to avoid stereotypical depictions of the wealthy, the Parks are not outwardly avaricious; despite their privilege, they exude a paradoxical gentleness.

This premise generates a series of increasingly bizarre and frequently hilarious mishaps as representatives of Korea’s have-nots enjoy free rein within the Parks’ spectacularly lavish modern house, whose cavernous kitchen alone could probably house a sizable poor family. The scenario allows Bong to poke wicked fun at Korean social mores, especially the elite’s special brand of helicopter parenting. The lengths the family goes to indulge Da-song’s peculiar obsession with Native Americans leads to a the film’s gory finale, in which the dispossessed wreak havoc and the Parks’ carefully-calibrated existence is left in shreds.

What is remarkable about Bong’s films (Okja, Snowpiercer) is their ability to smuggle radical themes into mass entertainment. As Bong himself observes, “…in today’s capitalistic society there are ranks and castes that are invisible to the eye. We keep them disguised and out of sight…but the reality is that there are class lines that cannot be crossed. I think that this film depicts the inevitable cracks that appear when two classes brush up against each other in today’s increasingly polarized society.”

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