There is a delicious irony in the awarding of the Palme d’Or to Bong Joon-ho’s new film, Parasite, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I can’t help being amused that the jury selected this film – an emphatically savage indictment of class relations in contemporary South Korea – for the festival’s main prize. Were the protests of the gilets jaunes on the Croisette ringing in the judges’ ears when they made their decision? Say what you will about populists, they have successfully undermined the sanctimony of the wealthy celebrity caste, which lectures the rest of us on privilege while sauntering down the red carpet in designer gowns and tuxedos. Mea culpa?
Bong is a filmmaker of formidable technical discipline. In films such as 2006’s The Host and 2009’s Mother, he revealed his expertise in creating almost unbearable suspense with swift economic precision. One of his most pronounced skills is his adeptness at using architectural space. He has an instinctive flair for placing his characters within the frame of both his interior and exterior shots. Much of the tension in his films comes from our awareness of where people are situated, of the proximity of both danger and secrets. That skill is at the fore in Parasite, which has two main locations. One is the shambolic basement apartment of the Kim family, their lives blighted by unemployment. The other is the uber-modern luxury house occupied by the rich Park family. Both homes have palatable presence in the film, and when later they are both violated, whether by human or natural acts, our response is dismayed shock. After all, the places where people live are never reducible to the material, never mere bricks and mortar. In both instances, the homes are haunted by memory.
This uneasy and almost supernatural element to Parasite is a subterranean layer – it is never quite successfully resolved. The decisive moment that accelerates the narrative is when Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the son of the Kim family, is given a ceremonial rock by a friend. The rock is said to bring wealth into the home. Very soon after, this friend, who is leaving to study abroad, asks Ki-woo if he will take over English tutoring duties for the daughter of the Park family. Ki-woo seizes this opportunity: after his father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), lost his job as a driver, the Kims have barely eked out a living folding pizza boxes.
The attractive Ki-woo ingratiates himself with both the Parks’ daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ziso), and more strategically with the mother, Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong). The Parks’ young son is wilful and spoilt, though Yeon-kyo is convinced his behaviour arises from innate artistic genius. Pretending he has heard of a terrific art teacher who has studied in America, Ki-woo gets his sister, Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), employed by the household. The fiercely intelligent Ki-jeong concocts a plan to have the Parks’ chauffeur fired and soon their father is hired as the family driver. The three begin plotting against the Parks’ long-term housekeeper, and the last member of the Kim family, mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin), is installed in her place. The Kims have hit paydirt.
To this point, Parasite has unfolded with quick and chilling purpose. The humour is cutting. We are appalled by the Kims’ cruel undermining of the chauffeur and the housekeeper but we are even more disgusted by the Parks’ avarice. The children are both brats, Yeon-kyo is a delusional snob, and Mr Park himself, played with exquisite slimy assurance by Lee Sun-kyun, is self-satisfied and arrogant. The Kims have to become parasites to gain any economic stability and opportunity. But they at last know the game they are playing. The true parasites are the Parks, blithely unaware of how much of their wealth and cosmopolitan privilege is dependent on ugly economic divisions.
It is when the Kims believe themselves to have finally escaped their poverty that the film delivers a narrative twist that sabotages their new-found complacency. I won’t spoil it, except to say that tellingly the Park house itself plays a part in the Kims’ undoing. It is also at this point the film’s structure begins to unravel. Bong’s technical control is remarkable, but he doesn’t have similar discipline when it comes to storytelling. The opaque supernatural elements butt against thriller and horror genre conventions, and the film’s main strength, its darkly savage humour, recedes. The action becomes overwrought, the plotting increasingly unruly, and our patience with the film starts wearing thin. Individual scenes maintain comic verve but the increasing convulsions of the story become harder to accept. And crucial questions are never satisfactorily answered. We know Ki-jeong manages to tame the Parks’ rowdy and petulant son through her art lessons, but we never see exactly what she does to achieve this result. Bong’s breathless pace keeps us entertained but the unanswered questions pile up, weakening our faith in the filmmaker’s intentions. This reckless disregard for following through the logic of the story was also at play in Bong’s English-language debut, Snowpiercer. That film grafted an agitprop sensibility to an ostensibly sci-fi action narrative, but the story became increasingly ridiculous.
The antecedents for Parasite are clear, particularly the lacerating work of the Spanish anarchist director Luis Buñuel, a filmmaker who never got tired of skewering and satirising the pretensions of the bourgeoisie. There’s also the influence of Yorgos Lanthimos, another contemporary director highly attuned to the possibilities of geometry and space. There are moments when the house and lawns of the Park house, and the composition of people within those spaces, seem to be consciously referencing Lanthimos’s astonishing sophomore film, Dogtooth. Bong is clearly attracted to the anarchist sensibility of both these filmmakers, but what he doesn’t have is their exuberant perversity. The acerbic black comedy gives way to sentimentality as Parasite rushes towards its denouement.
The cast members equip themselves adequately in the first half, when the tone is consistently caustic, but all the roles are underwritten and often rudimentarily stereotypical, particularly Mrs Park. The two actors who transcend those limitations are Park So-dam as the Kims’ daughter, and Lee Sun-kyun as the rich patriarch. Ki-jeong and Mr Park, one from the underclass and one from the patrician class, are the only characters who suggest there is a perverse erotic joy to be exacted from exploiting wealth and influence. It’s the closest Parasite gets to the danger of anarchy, the sense that the cruelty of power is itself an aphrodisiac, that the true parasites enjoy leeching off their host. Those two characters disappear from the final act of the film. I understand the moral choice Bong has made here – he wants us to empathise with the humiliation and quiet rage that lead to Kim Ki-taek’s final act of vengeance – but Song’s performance is muted and unpersuasive. The emotional turn comes too late and it doesn’t work. I left the cinema emotionally unaffected.
There are echoes of another film in Parasite: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or last year. That film, too, was about an unemployed working-class family that lived a lie in order to find a way to survive in the world. But Shoplifters, as with all of Kore-eda’s work, was consistent in the clarity of its humanist vision, the tenderness with which the director surveyed the struggles and mistakes of its protagonists. There is a dangerous and radical suggestion in Bong’s work in Parasite that the contemporary cruelties of inequality and globalisation demand that we all become leeches, that we all have to suck each other’s blood. But for us to feel the searing rebuke of that intent, Bong needed to be diligent in avoiding sentimentality.
There’s so much to enjoy here, in the energy of the filmmaking, the sometimes breathtaking compositional elegance. Parasite is a good film but I wish it were a bolder film. Then again, if it had been truly dangerous, I doubt it would have won the main prize.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 6, 2019 as "To leech their own". Subscribe here.