‘Parasite’ will grow on you

Joon-ho Bong’s Parasite which opens throughout Israel on August 15, is a combination of a biting social-protest comedy, a thriller and a horror film.

‘Parasite’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Joon-ho Bong’s Parasite (the surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), which opens throughout Israel on August 15, is a combination of a biting social-protest comedy, a thriller and a horror film.
Like the previous winner of the Palme d’Or, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, this is the story of a family that is on the wrong side of the post-war economic miracle in Asia and has to go to extreme lengths to make ends meet. Unlike Shoplifters, which was more of a character study about the members of a family and their attempt to help an abused girl, Parasite goes straight to the roots of the tragedy – an economic system that marginalizes even the hardest working people – and lets it play out in all its brutal detail.
At first, it seems as if it’s going to be a comic look at a poor family scamming a rich one, and for a while, it is that. But it goes much deeper, and brings in some metaphors – a boy who thinks he’s seen a ghost haunting his family’s house and a flood that is just a trickle in the wealthy neighborhood but that floods and destroys whole streets on the poor side of town – that underscore all the points the director wants to make. While some of them might sound obvious or heavy-handed, the film is harrowing in the way it draws us in and makes us experience, rather than observe, the characters’ sense of helplessness.
Bong is best known for genre movies, some of them, such as The Host, which involve supernatural creatures, but this is the scariest film I’ve seen of his by far. It’s all the more frightening because it reminded me of the famous quote from Walt Kelly’s comic strip, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The movie opens by introducing us to a down-on-their luck family, the Kims. The father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), is an unemployed livery driver and he lives with the rest of his family in a cramped basement apartment. His wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) are all jobless and the film opens with an everyday tragedy: Suddenly they can no longer log into the neighbor’s Wi-Fi and can’t even compete for jobs online that barely pay at all, like assembling pizza boxes.
But through a school friend, the resourceful Ki-woo gets hired to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the pretty, sweet high school student who is the daughter of a corporate mogul, Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun), and his air-headed, trend-conscious wife, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong). For part of the film, it seems as if we will be treated to something resembling Crazy Rich Asians, as every member of the poor family finds a job in the Park’s mansion. But in contrast to the gilded mansions in Crazy Rich Asians, the Parks live in a beautiful, airy house that is a gem of tasteful modernist architecture, with a huge, beautiful yard. Chung-sook becomes the housekeeper while Ki-jung, in the film’s comic high point, convinces the mother that she is qualified to be an art therapist for their unruly son. Ki-taek, of course, takes the chauffeur’s job. That most of this involves the poorer family getting people like themselves fired through utterly unscrupulous subterfuge is part of what leads the story to its darker turn.
I certainly won’t give away any spoilers here, but suffice it to say that you won’t guess any of the secrets, and once the story goes down the rabbit hole, it stays very dark till the end.
There are some wonderful performances, particularly from Cho Yeo-jeong as the ditzy rich lady and Song Kang-ho as the patriarch of a disintegrating family.
What is upsetting in Parasite is not only its violence – and there is plenty of that – but the unpleasant truths that make the violence inevitable. The story is so skillfully constructed  that this movie will stay with you long after it ends, for better or worse.