Foreign filmmakers, particularly in Asia, have been making long, engrossing, surprising statements about human issues of the day for a long time, and “Parasite” (2019) may not be the elite example of the form, but it’s a worthy Best Picture winner. If this first-ever foreign film to win Best Picture gets people to check out more subtitled gems, it’s worth it. Director/co-writer Bong Joon Ho, along with co-writer Jin Won Han, crafts a darkly funny commentary about South Korean class relations that the American film “Us” wishes it could’ve approached.
Perhaps because Korea doesn’t have America’s black-white race issue, Bong is able to sneak up on a viewer with his class commentary. Also, “Parasite” can get by on the sheer entertainment of its dark comedy if need be. Calling to mind the 2018 Japanese film “Shoplifters,” Kim Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) is a lower-class father who isn’t good at communicating moral values to his children, the young adults Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Along with matriarch Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), they are a family of con artists.
“Parasite” isn’t a straight lecture about class; indeed, it gets there through a hidden door similar to a literal one that eventually becomes central to the action. The film allows us plenty of time to wonder if the Kims could apply their brilliance toward an honest living. But at the same time, it’s interesting to note that the Kims use their con skills not to flat-out steal money, but rather to simply get jobs in the first place. In this economy, every security guard job draws applicants from 50 college graduates, Ki-taek says.
It’s fascinating to watch how Ki-woo gets a job as an English tutor for the daughter of the rich Park family — taking advantage of naïve matriarch Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) — then opens the door for his sister to get a job as an art tutor for the son, his dad to get a job as the driver, and his mom to get a job as the housekeeper. David Mamet would be impressed by the Kims’ scheme.
“Parasite” held my attention even though I didn’t know where it was going or what it was saying – although I was soaking up bits of classism from Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) along the way. As in “Shoplifters,” this film gradually makes us complicit with the Kims. We know what they are doing is wrong, but as the narrative moves forward we start to ask: “But really, how wrong is it?”
Bong hits on several genres over the film’s course; it’s mostly a dark comedy, and it gets particularly funny in a wonderfully staged bit where the Kims are hiding within earshot of the Park couple’s lovemaking. It also manages to make a peach allergy rather hilarious. But it moves into thriller territory at about the halfway point with the revelation of a sub-basement in the Park home. I’m a sucker for any story with a hidden sub-basement in it.
Indeed, the Park house – originally designed by a famous architect who lived there before selling it – is the bluntest character in the movie, with the way its gaudy wide-open spaces and lack of clutter (plus a back yard) laugh in the face of the Kims’ semi-underground dwelling. “Us” goes for that classic “Time Machine” metaphor where the classes are physically stratified, but “Parasite” shows us it’s literally true in South Korea. And it not only means danker living conditions, but also a threat of flooding that need never cross the Parks’ minds.
While this is arguably a too-literal metaphor, “Parasite” smooths its blunt edge by having Ki-woo talk openly about metaphors toward the start of the film, particularly in regard to a large mineral deposit he lugs around. There’s also a homeless guy who urinates in the street outside the Kims’ semi-basement window. Beyond the obvious “pissing where they live” observation, it’s perhaps an omen of coming weather.
Such elements might amount to nothing beyond their literal meaning, but with “Parasite” Bong has crafted one of those films that’s so smart in its broad strokes that one assumes the little things are saying something too.