With the Oscars approaching, one film building momentum in the fight for best picture – and whose victory would delight all but the most blinkered – is the Korean Bong Joon Ho’s deliriously dark and entertaining black comedy, Parasite.
It remains an outsider, given that no foreign language film has ever won the main prize. But if Bong breaks that barrier, it will be no fluke. Parasite’s theme, the gulf between rich and poor, resonates far and wide; its delivery – mixing social satire, twisty plotting and Hitchcockian tension – a masterclass in serious-minded but accessible mainstream filmmaking.
The chief protagonists are the impoverished Kim family – mum, dad, son, daughter, all unemployed, broke, living in a bug-infested basement at the dogend of a scuzzy street, desperately taking whatever they can, however they can, whether it’s borrowed wi-fi signals or free fumigation.
These are not pitiful folk, however. They’re smart, able, willing, and unscrupulous when they eye an opportunity to change their fortunes. One such occasion comes when an old school friend opens the door for Ki Woo (Choi Woo Shik) to become tutor to the teenage daughter of the wealthy Park family. A neatly forged CV courtesy of Ki Woo’s sister Ki Jung (Park So Dam) also helps, and soon he returns the favour by recommending her as art therapist “Jessica”, for the Parks’ troubled young son.
With the siblings in the door, it’s time to clear the way for their parents. First the driver is sneakily disgraced, making way for dad Ki Taek (Song Kang Ho) to get behind the wheel. Then a bravura dismantling of the revered housekeeper, cruelly capitalising on her peach allergy, makes way for mum Chung Sook (Chang Hyae Jin).
Thus far this plays like a caper movie, with class war as the subtext and the Parks’ gleaming modernist house the battlefield. The Kims may be cynical chancers, but it’s impossible to feel sorry for the snobbish Mr Park (Lee Sun Kyun) and his dim-witted wife (Cho Yeo Jeong), too self-absorbed to notice they’re being conned. As Chung Sook ruefully observes about them: “It all gets ironed out. Money is an iron.”
Nevertheless, this is just the beginning of Bong’s box of tricks. And the Kims themselves are in for an almighty surprise, which will send the film into increasingly unpredictable directions.
From his crime drama Mysteries of Murder, through monster movie The Host, sci-fi actioner Snowpiercer and the genetic food industry satire Okja, Bong has gradually built a world-class rep, founded on issues-based genre-twisting. Parasite sees him arrive at the top table. It’s brilliantly orchestrated on every level – cleverly scripted, winningly acted, with production design and camerawork combining for one remarkable set-piece after another, including a dramatic reminder that what can be picturesque rain for some, is catastrophic deluge for others.
This review first appeared in The i newspaper