Not too long ago, satire was a dirty word in Hollywood. The studios thought it too dark and political, and a bit of a slippery eel as far as marketing was concerned. Why couldn’t these pesky writers just stick to square-jawed heroes averting the apocalypse and maneuvering grateful beauties into bed? But the era of peak television has proved that audiences are more than capable of handling stiff social commentary, and dramatic lurches in world events have created an appetite for timely tales. And when it comes to cinema’s keen observers of the times, writer-director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja), one of South Korea’s most celebrated auteurs, stands at the forefront.
His new film, Parasite, which Bong calls a tragicomedy, just opened this week, but it’s already enjoying a remarkable run. In May, the director accepted the Palme d’Or at Cannes, making him the first Korean director ever to win the award. The head of the jury, Alejandro González Iñárritu, an equally inventive director, praised the film as “a unique experience. It’s so unexpected.” For Bong, the moment was “incredibly surreal,” he says. “It felt like I was directing and shooting the scene of my own speech.”
At the film festivals in Telluride and Toronto, screenings had to be added to meet demand. In South Korea, the film has grossed more than $70 million, and it’s been selected as the country’s official entry for best international feature film at the upcoming Academy Awards. In fact, Oscar chatter has swiftly enveloped Parasite, and there’s a growing expectation that, like Roma, it will transcend the category of international film.
There’s a growing expectation that Parasite, like Roma, will transcend the category of international film.
And rightfully so. Parasite is a riveting tale, both thrilling and thought-provoking, shot through with Bong’s trademark humor, and balanced with a profound exploration of the ways in which income inequality eats away at our capacity to relate to one another. At the center of his film lies a con: A poor family insinuates its way, one by one, into the household of a wealthy family. The son comes first, entering the home as a tutor, then comes the sister (on the recommendation of the brother) posing as an art teacher, and in due course the mother and father assume personae and follow, until all are ensconced in positions as household help.
It’s a premise that allows Bong to explore class dynamics in sophisticated and entertaining fashion, as he shows the poor family preparing for their roles within the house, rehearsing their deferential dialogue of the day.
“That resembles how poor people have to live their lives in society,” explains Bong. “Those who are poor, without authority or money, they often have to hide their emotions and pretend to be something else. People who are rich and have power can scream and get angry all they want.”
A poor family insinuates itself, one by one, into the household of a wealthy family.
The story ultimately descends into shocking territory, and audiences are advised to avoid spoilers before heading to the theater. One aspect of the film that will almost certainly elicit squirming is the way in which money is shown to effect capacity and character. The poor family is depicted as resourceful, whereas the wealthy mother is almost child-like. “Money to her is like the air we breathe,” explains Bong. “That doesn’t mean that she’s stupid. She’s led a life where she’s never had to think about money, and that’s why she’s so gullible.... That’s why the poor family is able to infiltrate the rich house.”
One of the reasons Parasite is sparking conversations is that income inequality is a universal issue. In the United States, the gulf between the rich and poor is now the largest in 50 years. In one of the film’s most powerful sequences, the advent of a storm illustrates that although the two families live in the same city, they might as well live a world apart. For Bong, social commentary is part of his work, and his focus on the consequences of rapacious capitalism has accelerated in such recent films as Okja and Snowpiercer, which explore how humans behave when faced with diminishing resources.
But the 50-year-old Bong says there’s little political calculation on his part. “It’s not as if I first come up with the grand political scene when I think of my stories,” he says. “I’m interested in the specific individual. But humans are social animals. The deeper I go into the context and psychology of certain individuals, the more the story connects to the society and history they’re surrounded by.”
The story ultimately descends into shocking territory.
In the past, several of Bong’s films have been inspired by a specific image—in Okja it was a benevolent beast; for Mother, a group of Korean ladies dancing on a bus. In Parasite, the director’s personal experience played a part. When he was in college in the late 80s, he tutored for a wealthy family, and he recalls an eerie atmosphere upon entering the house. He also remembers thinking how he could help some friends. “I had friends from poor families and they always needed jobs....I remember thinking, Since this family is rich, why don’t we all just go there and work for them?” As for his own class experience, Bong was raised middle class (his father was a graphic designer), and despite his success, he feels little has changed. “I still consider myself middle-class,” he says. “I’m a workaholic, so even when I make more money I don’t have time to use it. I just continue working.”
Bong’s vivid characters, sharp plots, and dark comedy are what make his films effective vessels for challenging ideas. But there’s also his eye. In Parasite, the film moves between a basement-level hovel and a spectacular modern house. “Around 90 percent of this film happens in those two houses,” explains Bong, who studied how Hitchcock used the structure of the house in Psycho to such masterful effect.
Parasite is notable for its moral ambiguity, and Bong is not interested in guiding the audience toward clear conclusions. “I want to create films that stay with the audience. When a film ends with the protagonist defeating that villain, it feels great, but all the emotions evaporate once you leave the theater. When you’re unsure who’s the villain, and who’s on the side of justice, you think about the film more.”
There’s a scene in Parasite where we witness a moment of shame. The poor father, Mr. Kim, overhears something said about him by the head of the wealthy household. It’s a quietly devastating scene. “On the surface you could say that the story is about the rich and poor and about capitalism,” reflects Bong. “But fundamentally this story is about the respect we have for other human beings. When someone fails to show that respect, the pain and shame shatters your personhood. This film shows the tragedy that can happen when that breaks down in the worst way.” —Emily Poenisch