By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Folks showed up early and in long lines for the sneak preview in Seattle of Joon-ho Bong’s new film “Parasite,” winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Bong’s seventh feature film, as a director, was the first film to win the prize with a unanimous vote from the judges, since 2013.
The show started half an hour late as the SIFF Cinema Egyptian struggled to find seats for folks from the standby list. It seemed like quite the hype for a picture that opens with a shot of dirty socks.
Okay, the socks are probably relatively clean, as they dangle drying from a ceiling fixture.
But Bong dropped us directly into a shabby semi-basement apartment, signified by the socks. These are people in dire straits, and looking for anything to lift their fortunes.
We quickly meet the struggling Kim family: The son Ki-woo (played by young Korean Canadian Woo-shik Choi); daughter Ki-jeong (So-dam Park); and the parents, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) and Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang). Their position below street level symbolizes their position in life: Nobody has regular work, and they struggle, between searching for free wi-fi and dodging household pests, for work of any kind, however menial. And they often fail, tragicomically, at even that.
It’s a hard life, and when Ki-woo gets a tip from his old friend Min-hyuk (Seo-joon Park) that a young girl from a wealthy family needs tutoring, he gathers a few fake documents, puts on his only fancy-dress clothes, and heads over to meet the Park family.
Very much on the other end of the economic spectrum, the Parks live in a huge, fantastically-designed mansion that someone could hide in for some time, without notice from anyone else. Its vast footprint, opulent yard, and huge picture window, with a view of the yard, will become significant as the plot unspools.
Ki-woo’s nervous as he buzzes the door to the mansion; he’s already practiced some deception. But Mrs. Park (Yeo-jeong Cho) proves bubbly, to the point of near-mania. She doesn’t care about the (fake) documents, she’s just happy that a clean-cut, refined young fellow will tutor her daughter, Da-hye (Ji-so Jung).
The young man settles into his tutoring job, meeting, along the way, the rest of the Parks, and their housekeeper. As he gains confidence in pretending to be a learned scholar and qualified tutor, he has an idea. If he can gain a position in the house with little more than fancy clothes, refined speech, and a resolute panache —why can’t the rest of the family attach themselves to the Parks the same way?
One of the strongest elements of “Parasite” is the darkly humorous way the Kims reinforce each other. If the name of the game is menial labor, they all pitch in, come hell or high water. If they have to lie, cheat, steal, backstab, and put on fake identities, to get in with the Parks, they simply roll that way.
It helps that the high-flying Parks don’t know much about how the real world works.
They’re accustomed to wealth, privilege, the insulation from harm that money buys. They’ll trust anyone who presents correctly, who looks, walks, and talks a certain way. They’ve also gotten used to patronizing their help, taking people for granted. It doesn’t occur to them that anyone might be plotting to use them.
So the Kims mean to live off the Parks—becoming collectively the “parasites” of the title.
But then, a twist. And another twist. Unforseen secrets shoot to the fore, and the Kims have to think seriously about what they’ll do to survive.
At 132 minutes, “Parasite” could have used a light trimming, to grant its sinister comedy more punch. But Bong deftly sets laughter alongside macabre thrills, even as he indirectly comments on the state of the so-called First World. Regular jobs are out, the “gig economy” is in. People work, go to sleep, and wake up not in the least bit sure that they’ll have work for the next day.
Under such circumstances, is morality a luxury item out of most people’s reach? And what, the director asks, under all the wild action, would you do in the Kim’s place? You won’t care to ask yourself that. But Bong knows you’ll at least think about it.
“Parasite” opens on Oct. 25 at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian Theatre, 805 East Pine Street. For prices, showtimes, and more information, visit siff.net/year-round-cinema/parasite.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.