Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, winner of this year’s Palme D’Or, unfolds at first comically, then tragically. Smiles turn to grimaces when the fragile positions Bong’s characters find themselves in are splayed across the picturesque lawn. In Parasite, Bong’s brilliance derives from his ability to effortlessly transition between familial drama, satirical comedy and then subterranean thriller, using his brilliantly designed settings and thoughtfully choreographed sequences to hold it all together.
Parasite opens in Kim Ki-woo’s basement apartment wherein he and his family live in abject poverty: we see them folding pizza boxes to make money, stealing Wi-Fi from a nearby shop, and leaving their windows open to allow the fumes from a nearby extermination deal with their own infestation. Ki-woo’s life changes when his university friend offers him a job tutoring Park Da-hye, the daughter of a rich business tycoon, as he doesn’t want another tutor falling for her while he is traveling. Ki-woo starts his lessons and quickly falls for Da-hye while simultaneously contriving a plan to get his entire family jobs at the house. Ki-woo convinces Yeon-kyo, the mother, that Jo Yeo-jeong, the son of the house, needs an art tutor, allowing his sister to enter the picture. Soon, Ki-woo’s mother and father are in the Park house as well, working as a driver and maid, respectively. Kim’s plan works for a while; however, the fragile and manufactured relationships begin to collapse. The resulting fallout could have played out in several ways – leading just as easily to class war as arbitrated peace – and although Bong conveys his messages about class inequality with directness, there is still much room for interpretation.
Despite Bong’s ultimate directness, his perspective on classism seems neither arrogant nor academic. This is primarily achieved through his use of perfect timing and framing to undercut his commentaries with comedy, seemingly encouraging the audience to laugh about the most disparaging elements of Kim’s condition. When the Kim family is shown folding pizza boxes in their cramped half-basement home and the fumes from a nearby fumigation are about to come in through their windows, Ki-woo goes to close the windows, but an excited Ki-taek insists that the windows be left open so that their own stink-bug infestation is dealt with. The family continues to fold the boxes as the shot is obscured by the fumes now flooding the house. The family chokes on the fumes while the audience laughs.
The lighthearted tone continues to undercut the film even as the Kim family’s invasive methods become increasingly sinister. In order to rise above the poverty that has defined their existence – both literally and figuratively – the Kims’ push their similarly disadvantaged competitors back into the poverty they were presumably able to escape. Bong’s deft balancing act between comedy and horror as the film builds compelled me to consider the Kim’s invasive actions with both respect and contempt. While the Kims’ were able to manufacture interclass symbiosis and deceive the Parks rather ingeniously, they failed to consider how they disadvantaged domestic workers in a similar situation to them.
With about thirty minutes left in the film, the film’s final structure begins to take shape, and the sequences that were once undercut by a giddy tone turn into unbearably tense moments so seamlessly and quickly that I at first didn’t realize what was happening. The violent destination of Parasite, emblematic of the economic precarities caused by a system that is increasingly ripping at the seams, successfully compromises Bong’s directness to allow for more interpretation. The horrifying final sequences are defined by unwavering savagery as the fleeting interclass symbiosis is blown apart. And while much of the imagery used in the film was direct in establishing the dialectical opposition between the families, Bong creates an ending in which no single character is wholly responsible for the brutal return to the status quo. Thus, he allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions about the ultimate fates of the characters.