This article is part of our 2019 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from 2019.
When Bong Joon-ho released Parasite into the world, he smashed open the great invisible tragedy of classism with all the power of a sacred stone to the back of the skull. Bong, who directed and co-wrote the film, made a truly irresistible piece of art, a crowd-pleaser that’s also surprising and challenging. It’s a captivating, genre-blending culmination of a two-decade career that’s also included The Host, Snowpiercer, and Okja. It’s also an unmissable accomplishment in directing, acting, scoring, editing, screenwriting, cinematography, and pretty much everything else a movie is meant to do.
If all that weren’t enough, the conversation surrounding Parasite — a film that received an eight-minute standing ovation and the Palme d’Or at Cannes, yet may not be able to crack the main categories of the Oscars due simply to its country of origin — has forced us to reconcile with the absurdity of the American award show system once and for all. In an interview, Bong called the Oscars “very local,” a statement that, like his films, is funny and truthful and unexpected all at once. And while Parasite undoubtedly deserves a Best Picture slot at the year’s biggest award show, history indicates that international (read: non-English speaking) films are largely confined to a single category at the Academy Awards, which until this year was rather ethnocentrically called “Best Foreign Language Film.” The award system’s obvious shortcomings will likely only fall under further scrutiny after the Oscar nominees are announced on January 13th.
The phrase “go into it cold” has been nearly robbed of meaning in this spoiler-phobic day and age, but when it comes to Parasite, it’s less of a suggestion and more of an order. As a film that rewards audience engagement with moment-to-moment thrills at a ratio that’s reminiscent of Hitchcock’s most perfectly paced classics, Parasite left me — someone who went in so cold I didn’t even know the basic premise — laughing, gasping, and sobbing in turn. This is the part of the article where you might want to pause until you’ve seen the film and then come back, as spoilers will follow.
“This is so metaphorical,” Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) says when his family receives an auspicious gift from a friend, a “scholar’s rock” that’s said to bring wealth to whoever owns it. Even more auspicious: his friend is studying abroad for a while, leaving his swanky in-home tutoring position open for Ki-woo to take over. Ki-woo’s family is poor, but not in any of the cliche rich-in-spirit American movie ways we’re used to seeing on screen, nor in the vein of humorless, tragedy porn Oscar-bait that’s nearly as common.
In 21st century Hollywood films, the poor working class is rarely shown on screen in the first place, but when it is, lived experiences are often diminished into a Bingo card of familiar signifiers (food kitchens, illegal side hustles, eviction notices) that drain a subject that hits close to home for so many of its authenticity. Parasite, on the other hand, speaks the language of economic hardship from the moment it begins and remains authentic to its closing shot. The truth of the central family’s struggle reveals itself in details that are honest and familiar to anyone who’s been in a similar situation, rooted in dark humor and an edge of desperation that’s anything but simple. The Kim family uses their neighbor’s wifi, takes single-day gigs like folding pizza boxes, and lets public fumigation chemicals into their semi-basement home on purpose. They’re grateful for the free pest repellant, even as they choke on the smoke.
When Ki-woo hears about the job opening, his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam), soon renamed Jessica, Photoshops him a college degree on a public computer. Ki-woo’s official documents fall by the wayside, though, when he meets the Park family, whose matriarch Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) is more interested in keeping up with the ever-changing whims of her teen daughter, boy scout son, and CEO husband (Lee Sun-kyun). Yeon-kyo is the kind of fluttery, tense-smiling wealthy woman who is appalled by the smallest perceived embarrassments. She fits into her visually arresting home — designed by the former owner, a famous architect, the housekeeper explains — like a doll on a shelf. Rich people trust rich people, she pretty much admits, and she thinks Ki-woo (whom she renames Kevin) is rich, so when he says he knows an art therapy teacher named Jessica who could take on the Park family’s rowdy son as a client, she jumps at the chance.
Parasite establishes the core of these vibrant characters and their tense and hilarious dynamics within the first few scenes of the film; Bong and co-writer Han Jin-Won’s script evolves constantly and doesn’t waste a minute. Every shot and sequence of Parasite works toward its end goal, and as the Kim family begins to take on significant and lucrative roles in the Park household, with Jessica as an art therapist to the son, Kevin as a tutor to the daughter, father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) as the family driver, and, finally, mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) as their housekeeper, the film delivers sequences that are as thrilling as the best heist movies you’ve ever seen, and as clever as the most biting comedies of manners.
While the Parks have the privilege of naivety, the Kims are street smart, molded into con artists by years of misfortunate circumstance. They play on the indulgences of the wealthy easily, wooing them with the illusion of exclusivity and delivering killing blows to their predecessors (a driver and housekeeper who are framed as a pervert and a disease-spreader, respectively) with an appeal to the Parks’ queasy aversion to anything untoward. These job-heist montages are accompanied by quick, precise edits, music that builds in tandem with audiences’ own anti-bourgeoisie sense of schadenfreude, and instantly classic uses of slow-motion — as when Jessica tosses the peach she’ll use to cause an allergic reaction in the housekeeper into the air, its fibrous dust cascading down in the sunlight.
As someone who in college moved from one of the meth capitals of the United States to a town with a median home value of 1.5 million dollars, I’ll admit that the joyous, flawless underclass takeover that makes up Parasite’s first hour would’ve been enough to make it my own personal movie of the year. The giant, unnameable feelings I had when I first walked into a home so clean it made me feel dirty were right there on-screen for the first time, played out in the dumbstruck-nervous-eager expression plastered across Choi Woo-shik’s face. Yet, luckily for all of us, Bong had more than simple class warfare on his mind.
There is, we soon learn, another family leeching off the Parks, one that is not as easy to love as the Kims. While the rich family is away, the Kims sit contemplating their situation: ”She’s rich but still nice.” “She’s nice because she’s rich.” “Money is an iron; it all gets ironed out.” When Mrs. Kim expresses slight concern for the folks whose jobs they undermined, Jessica whines that they shouldn’t worry about anyone else, only themselves. Just then, like punctuation or a curse, lighting strikes. The doorbell rings. The former housekeeper (Lee Jeong-eun) has returned in the dead of night to visit her husband (Park Myung-hoon), who has apparently been hidden away in the house’s secret basement for years.
With this turn of fate, Parasite takes on the air of some gothic ghost story, initially casting its basement-dwelling couple in the role of grotesque villains. The camerawork becomes that of a horror film: all hard shadows and uneasy reveals. Mrs. Kim is obviously disgusted by this family from the start, their poverty somehow uglier and less valiant than her own family’s. Perhaps the underground family’s need is too obvious, their inability to assimilate with the upper class too embarrassing, their satisfaction with where they are — ”I just feel comfortable here,” the husband says — too pathetic. Perhaps they just feel like an uncomfortable ghost of the family the Kims were just weeks earlier, and a reminder that the wheel of fortune could turn again.
Nevermind the fact that the two family’s paths to this point were near-identical, with both patriarchs opening failed cake shops but only the doomed one getting money from loan sharks. Mr. Park speaks of a musty smell that surrounds driver Mr. Kim, and it seems as if the Kims can sense that this ghoulish family reeks even stronger of the basement than they do. They’re scrambling for purchase, barefoot on the stairs, willing to do anything to keep their tenuous upward mobility from collapsing. It’s not a pretty situation, nor a simple one, but I hope the implications of this dynamic-shifting class struggle within a class struggle will be examined for years to come as Parasite gains new classic status.
When Parasite’s third act rolls around, bringing with it a flood that tragically submerges the Kims’ home while the Parks sit high on an untouchable hill, it calls to mind two feelings: jealousy and bitterness. Jealousy, I’ve always thought, is personal. You can be jealous of someone’s nice watch or new job or supportive partner. Jealousy can be overcome and unlearned. Bitterness, on the other hand, is institutional, compounded by years and generations of unfairness piled on your back until you’re ready to break. Bitterness is poison. Bitterness feels righteous, even as it boils down the best of people into their raw and feral parts. When audiences see Mrs. Park stroll into her walk-in closet to choose an outfit for an impromptu party while the Kims simultaneously pull clothes from a ragged pile in the evacuation center post-flood, that’s the metallic tang of bitterness you taste on your tongue. Parasite, miraculously, can overcome the strongest of class barriers to make each audience member feel it whether you’ve seen the soul-crushing contrast between wealth and poverty in person or not. “The sky’s so blue, and no pollution thanks to all the rain yesterday!” chipper Mrs. Park says to a friend on the phone, while all of the Kims worldly possessions float in dirty water. The irony is too much, the bitterness suffocating, and the film’s bloody end begins to feel inevitable.
That’s the great tragedy of privilege, then, the heartbreaking truth Parasite lays bare. When you have privilege, you don’t have to have any sense of awareness about anyone else, while they have to know everything about you. This is true for all types of privilege, including race and gender-based structural advantages, but by showing a class contrast that often remains invisible, Bong hammers this truth home in regards to economic disparity in a way that no other popular film has done so well or thoroughly before. The Kims know how to scam the Parks because they’ve had to deal with people like them all their lives, while the Parks wouldn’t even know how to begin to imagine the Kims’ real lives. This is a truth that is woven into every scene of the film, every exchange between the two families. Money allegedly can’t buy happiness, but it can certainly buy ignorant bliss.
So when Mr. Kim buries an ax in his employer’s chest in the middle of a birthday party-turned-bloodbath, it’s not as unexpected as it may have been at the film’s beginning. The tragedy of the climax was imminent from the start, in Mr. Kim’s passive weariness and his increasing understanding that he’s not able to provide for children who are savvier and less downtrodden than he is. He, the Parks keep insisting, has the basement smell, so it’s only right that the easygoing man — embodied so effortlessly by Kang-ho Song, who communicates this interiority through expressions and reactions alone — is the one to finally snap, hurting a family that he knows isn’t directly responsible for any of his own family’s suffering, a family of characters who aren’t even designed by Bong to be unlikable.
By film’s end, if you’re paying close attention, your laughter will have given way to tears at the inevitable, bitter-hearted devastation. Ki-woo promises he’ll come back for his father, who, ever the cockroach, escaped police by hiding in the secret basement. He’ll buy the beautiful house, he says in a poignant message, and his dad will be free again. But we know he’s not that naive. He can’t afford to be.
“Eat the rich,” a paraphrase of a quote by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, has recently become a popular shorthand response to any grotesque, over-the-top news story about late capitalism’s failure to take humanity into account. Several movies from 2019 take on this mentality, but Parasite, a stunner on all counts and a film that’s impossible to shake weeks after watching, may be the best film of the 21st century to actually pick up the knife and fork and dig in.