Scene one, hot take one: Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece ‘Parasite’ spotlights rise of lower class

Jeong Ji-So as Da-Hye in the film "Parasite." His eyes are covered by a black bar and the background is made up of multicolored spirals.
Graphic by Greta Long

While not a household name, Bong Joon-ho has quietly become one of the defining directors of this decade. The Korean auteur burst onto the scene with his sophomore film, “Memories of Murder,” a murder mystery film that rose to fame in Korea and made him a film snob’s darling state side. 

After the success of “Memories of Murder” and his follow-up films, “The Host” and “Mother,” Bong came to work in the Hollywood studio system. But despite featuring big names like Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, Bong’s two American films, “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” lacked the critical and commercial success of his earlier Korean language films.

After the mixed reception to Bong’s English-language films, he returned to his Korean roots to make “Parasite” — a film that cements his status as a master director.

“Parasite” opens with its protagonists, the lower-class Kim family, scrambling around their house trying to connect to WiFi so they can search for online job postings. The opening tells us all we need to know — the Kims are a working class family that cannot find work, and the widespread class inequality of modern-day South Korea keeps them from changing their class status.

Eventually, the eldest Kim son, Kim Ki-woo, played wonderfully by Choi Woo-shik, hatches a plan to trick the upper-class Park family into hiring his lower-class family as “the help.” This plan comes together in a remarkably fun caper of forgery, deceit, blackmail and even framing others for crimes — all in order to simply secure work from the comically wealthy Parks.

It’s in the lengths that the Kims go to secure basic work where “Parasite” makes its most powerful point. When faced with the inability to provide for one’s family, people will lie, cheat and steal just to make ends meet. 

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The Kims’ heist to secure work is where Bong’s eye as a director shines the brightest. Bong’s camerawork makes a task as simple as removing the fuzz from a peach seem as edge-of-your-seat thrilling as a bank robbery. His meticulous and detailed set design makes the Parks’ mansion seem like a lush and hyperreal paradise that the Kim family can only aspire to live in. Most importantly, Bong’s mastery of pacing and tone allows the film to switch from pitch black comedy to thriller to deeply-moving melodrama with ease.

For a while, the Kim family’s heist goes off smoothly, and they all secure jobs with the trust of the Parks. The wealthy Parks, however, will never let their superior class status go unnoticed. This dynamic is represented best by the interactions between the patriarch of the Park family (Lee Sun-kyun) and his driver, the patriarch of the Kim family (played to perfection by Korea’s greatest working actor, Song Kang-ho).

During their conversations, Mr. Park continually makes it clear that Kim should never attempt to cross the line of worker to friend. Their scenes together heartbreakingly illustrate how a man like Mr. Kim will always seem inhuman to a man like Mr. Park.

Eventually, a wrench is thrown in the Kims’ plans when they spend the night at the Park mansion while the Parks are out of town. It would be criminal to spoil this incredibly shocking twist that sends the film into overdrive. However, I will briefly mention that this twist takes the film from thought-provoking class heist to delightfully insane thrill ride.

The jaw-dropping intensity of the film’s final two acts would not work without the remarkable setup that Bong and his cast created in the first half of the film. This setup ranges from Mr. Park continually emasculating Mr. Kim (which pays off in the film’s explosive climax), to the son of the Kim family constantly commenting on “how metaphorical” key objects in the film are. 

The intentional, artful cues to certain objects beg the audience to pour through the text of the film and find significance in the film’s most minor details, elevating the fun thriller to a masterpiece.

“Parasite” will be looked upon as a decade-defining film. Whether it be the camera, set design, themes, details, story, characters or gut-punch of an ending, it succeeds on every level. “Parasite” is a masterpiece, a film I cannot and will not stop recommending for a long time. 

“Parasite” 5/5 Stars 

Ben Hafetz PZ ’20 is one of TSL’s film columnists. He’s a media studies and politics double major who likes to not only see movies, but also tell his friends why they should or should not like certain ones.

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