In the past decades, Hollywood became not just a household name for American cinema, but also set the standards of what a good film should look like. But recently, most film enthusiasts have their eyes at the underdog: Korean cinema. Slowly creeping up towards the very top, Korean cinema is anticipated to be the up-and-coming rival for Hollywood’s position.
And that time came with Palme d’Or recipient, Parasite (2019). Breaking through the rigid film industry that has been saturated with Western films and filmmakers, Parasite made history and we were all there to see it.
This gem has managed to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, 4 Academy Awards and several other accolades. And in this article, we’ll see how this magnificent art piece did so.
Disclaimer: From this point onwards, the article will contain spoilers.
The Genius Director: Bong Joon Ho
Undeniably, Bong Joon Ho is an international auteur and masterful storyteller. Under his belt are noteworthy masterpieces: crime drama Memories of Murder (2003), the monster movie The Host (2006), the dystopian thriller Snowpiercer (2013) and an action-adventure film Okja (2017). Bong has a major cult following amongst film enthusiasts, especially now with his new film, Parasite.
A visionary and a skilled storyteller, this bonafide director rearranges familiar narratives with utmost precision whilst sprinkling pitch-black humour at the side. This aptly explains the appeal of Parasite.
Capitalism: The Common Evil
Parasite is a social satire film, or what Bong would call a ‘family tragicomedy’, that expounds on the disparity between the two classes: the rich and the poor. We follow 3 groups of people: A wealthy family, the Parks; a financially struggling family, the Kims; and a destitute couple, Moon Gwang and Geun Sae.
The film eloquently displayed the hypocrisy of capitalist “laws”. An idealist would say that to be rewarded, all you need is hard work and skills.
But in Parasite, we are introduced to the Kims who are skilled in their own ways. These skills are highlighted when they started working under the Parks. With their abilities, they should be able to be rewarded. And yet, they’re living in a semi-basement and were surviving on odd jobs.
It seems their rewards are only attainable if they avoid the more honest and morally righteous route. Things only started to look up when Ki Woo landed a job as a tutor despite not having the qualifications to do so. And almost like parasites, one by one, the Kims used their curated personas to infiltrate the Parks’ home.
This struggle is further highlighted when juxtaposed to the Parks’ seemingly oblivious attitudes. In the simple yet poignant Jjapaguri with Steak scene, the class disparity is stark. Mrs Kim used noodles from noodle packets but she also mixed in Korean sirloin. Local beef is considered as one of the most expensive cut meats, and to pair it with cheap instant noodles is almost laughable. In normal circumstances, these two ingredients will never be mixed, and yet, here we are. Mrs Park not only enjoyed the dish, but she seemed oblivious of the fact; just as how she’s oblivious of the true identity of the Kims and the couple under the basement. She doesn’t have a clue, nor does she care to correct it.
Highs and Lows, Lines And Scent: Class Extremes
Signs of class disparity are abundant. The film opens with a scene in a semi-basement with windows that present them with a ground view that is dirty, pest-infested and urine-stained. Compare this to the Parks who not only have a mansion situated at the highest part of town, but also enjoy a spacious and luscious private front lawn.
However, when there’s poor, there’s poorer. We’re later introduced to a couple living in the basement in the Parks’ mansion, Moon Gwang and Geun Sae. Forget sunlight or stable Wi-Fi connection – proper meals are a luxury. The crucial point of contention, far more interesting than the Parks versus the Kims, is the fight between the two groups within the same class strata. To sustain their new positions, the Kims go through great lengths to keep the couple below them, literally and figuratively.
The countless visible and invisible lines in the film also hint at the class inequality. In scenes where both the Kims and Parks are seen together, subtle lines are always present to separate them visually. Not once did any of them cross over to the other side.
An invisible line is drawn when Mr Park mentions the smell akin to the ones in the subways. It insinuates that this particular scent is applicable for everybody except the rich, who are financially well off to have a car. And with a chauffeur, Mr Park is even more privileged than most. However, the need to draw a line comes off as ironic, as it was implied that the Parks’ are part of the nouveau riche. They, themselves have, in fact, crossed the line to reach the other side.
It’s Not Just Class, It’s Political
Ki Jung’s viral ‘finger-quote’ mnemonic jingle is not only a clever approach to remember the details of her fake persona, but also has heavy political connotations. The melody is derived from a classic Korean song, Dokdo is our Land, which represents the struggle between Korea and Japan over the Dokdo Islands. The competition for the islands is reflected in the fight between the Kims and the couple for the position of being the Parks’ very own parasites.
Throughout the film, we are exposed to Mr and Mrs Park’s son, Da Song and his fascination with Native American culture. It not only points out the pursuit of American imperialism, but also the unjust aftermath. The idea of displacement and inequality becomes almost painful when you watch Da Song, who represents the privileged, don and parade in Native American cultural garment and even sleep in a tepee. It becomes a novel experience that morphs into entertainment; whilst the displaced can do nothing but to exist and sleep in any place at which they are allowed to do so, for instance, when the Kims had to sleep in the gym after losing their home because of the rain.
Parasite is a masterpiece that has been recognised by the global audience. The controversy surrounding the wins is not because of the film itself, but rather the need to read subtitles, of all things.
It’s too much of a pity to allow foreign language (inaccessible on its own but accessible with subtitles) to stop you from appreciating art. Especially seeing as how Korean cinema has been making its way into the global stage, we don’t see why you wouldn’t want to pick up the Korean language. At Sejong Korean Language School, you’ll be taught by a team of native Korean teachers. Learn at Singapore’s #1 Korean language school and delve into the wonders of Korean cinema.