Film Review: ‘Parasite’ is a true cinematic masterwork

Parasite (2019) will be South Korea’s first film entry to be nominated for the Academy Awards.

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho satirizes class warfare in his Cannes Film Festival-winning black comedy. ‘Parasite’ is set to sweep the Best Foreign Language Picture category in the upcoming awards season.

Bong Joon-ho writes and directs his films similarly to how an architect blueprints a building—with devotion to structure and precision. Among film industry circles, he developed a reputation for his meticulous directorial style. While other directors are malleable to improvising the filmmaking process, Bong storyboards almost every frame to make sure each scene is composed and shot the way he envisioned them. He would make paper copies of these storyboards—which resemble pages of a manga—and hand them out to his cast and crew prior to filming. Not only does his crew get a clearer sense of the shots, but it ensures that each scene is purposeful.

With Parasite, every scene is rich with symbolism and character portraits. The film progresses as it uncovers layer after layer, leading to story revelations both astounding and  sensible. In the Vitruvian tradition of architecture, structures can best be evaluated via three aspects: beauty, structural integrity, and utility. Bong Joon-ho exceeds these components in filmic form, gracefully capturing a balance between reason and imagination.

It is difficult to explain Parasite’s directorial mastery without disclosing some major spoilers. It is advisable that going in blind; knowing nothing about the plot, would maximize its effect on viewers.

Parasite is best categorized as a multi-genre satire about social class disparity. It lays out the interactions of two families on opposing ends of the class divide. The destitute Kim family lives in a basement apartment at an impoverished part of the city. One day, the son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) gets offered a job to tutor the daughter of the affluent Park family. As he enters the Park home, he gets enthralled by the richer family’s overabundance of wealth.

The Kim family (From L to R): Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), and Ki-jung (Park So-dam).

He relays what he saw to the other members of the Kim family—the patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), matriarch Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam)—who become eager to get a taste of this luxury. They scheme to get hired by the Parks one by one.

The exterior of the Park mansion. (Courtesy: NEON)

Most of Parasite takes place in a state-of-the-art piece of architecture—the modernist Park mansion—that was custom-built for the film’s production.

The home is situated on the town’s hilltop, enclosed from the lower-grade buildings below. Plotwise, the structure’s primary function is to shield the Parks from being confronted by the realities of social class disparity. The house is the centerpiece on Bong’s lay of the land—a “host” that the “parasites” explore. The Kims get to dabble in the highs of wealthy living, fulfilling a sense of gratification that answers to the unfairness of socioeconomic inequality. At first

Parasite’s intricate plotting, symbolism, sharp dialogue, and distinct characterizations all contribute to the structural integrity of the story . Bong masterfully builds upon each plot development in a way that naturally adds pressure to the conflict, leading viewers scrape out what lies beneath the base of the narrative’s edifice. 

Bong’s masterpiece is especially commendable for dwelling in moral grays. It neither vilifies the wealthy Parks, nor does it demand compassion for the poverty-stricken Kims. The former are portrayed as oblivious, while the latter undertake mischievous means to climb the social ladder. Above all, each character’s motivation stems from an understandable place. The narrative avoids the moral high-ground, and instead, pushes the human condition to dance on the edge of reason. The result is a poignant and universal vignette about economic injustice.