Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is the 2020 Oscars winner everyone is talking about, and for good reason. Bold, beautiful and overwhelmingly brutal, the Best Picture film is so much more than a dark comedy: it’s a powerful takedown of modern society, too.
Bong Joon-Ho has something of a Midas effect when it comes to film: everything he touches turns to gold. At home, the director has a shelf that’s positively groaning with awards – and The Host and Snowpiercer are both among the highest-grossing films of all time in South Korea. However, it’s Parasite which has made serious waves in Hollywood.
The first South Korean film to receive and win an Academy Award nomination in any category (for his work on the film, Bong won not just one but four films at the 2020 Oscars: Best Director, Best International Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture), Parasite is a bitterly dark comedy – one which, at least on the surface, looks like your typical con man story.
So, what’s Parasite about?
Eternal dreamer Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) lives in a small basement flat with his family. Together, they work tirelessly to make ends meet, folding cardboard pizza boxes under their naked fluorescent bulbs and selling hundreds of them for a handful of cash at a time. Then, one day, everything changes. Ki-woo’s best friend – a wealthy university student with big dreams of his own – wants his poorer pal to take over his job as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family’s teenage daughter, Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so).
Why? Well, ostensibly because he wants to help Ki-woo out – but it’s actually because he fancies Da-hye and wants someone non-threatening to take his place. Someone who won’t turn her head. Someone who… well, who he doesn’t see as competition in any way shape or form.
Enter Ki-woo – and, boy, does he make an entrance. Not only does he impress Da-hye and her mother Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), but he also comes up with a devious plan to get his entire family jobs within the Park household. First, his sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) enters as an aloof art therapist for the Park’s youngest child Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) – despite, y’know, having zero qualifications whatsoever and simply googling the basics online.
Next, the siblings work together to get the Park’s chauffeur fired, in order to bring their father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) into the fold. Then, finally, the dastardly trio work to bring down the Park family’s housekeeper so that they can bring their own beloved matriarch, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) in on the plan.
What are the key themes of Parasite?
Bong skilfully sets up his key players, painting the poorer family as a parasitic infestation: much like cockroaches, they scuttle in the shadows, freeze when a light shines directly on them, and even their basement flat feels like an underground nest – especially when you compare it to the Kim family’s glossy and open-aired home.
However, it quickly becomes apparent that this relationship is actually a symbiotic one – because, despite appearances, the Parks are using the Kims, too. Very, very much so. And, as this realisation slowly takes hold, Ki-woo and his family find themselves spiralling towards Parasite’s brutal and shocking conclusion.
Why is Parasite such powerful viewing for millennials?
“Ki-woo, do you know what kind of plan never fails?” Ki-taek – cynical and oh-so-tired of swimming upstream – asks his son. “No plan at all. If you make a plan, life will never work out that way.”
It’s a line which will undoubtedly strike a chord with cash-strapped millennials everywhere. After all, we know what it’s like to get caught up in a recession, to struggle in the recovery, and to be left more vulnerable than our older age cohorts. As we pitch toward middle age, many of us are failing to achieve the financial wealth we hoped for as bright-eyed teens. Buying a home of our own feels like an impossible dream, especially if we’re a) single and b) want to keep our city-based jobs (London remains one of the most expensive cities for first-time buyers ever). We are – as reported by The Atlantic – most likely to be “the first generation in modern economic history to end up worse off than their parents”. And “the next downturn might make sure of it, stalling our careers and sucking away our wages as we enter our prime earning years”.
The Kim family are, at first, painted as Parasite’s primary protagonists. As lazy cockroaches, unwilling to put in the effort needed to escape their position in society. However, this couldn’t be further from the case – which is made abundantly clear by their outstanding work ethic. The Kims are willing to fold as many pizza boxes as it takes each day. And, once they have schemed their way into the Park household, they don’t rest on their laurels: Ki-woo proves himself to be an insightful and brilliant teacher, and Ki-jeong is fiercely protective of her young charge.
Elsewhere, Ki-taek doesn’t simply drive his employers around: he carts around their heavy bags and boxes, too. And Chung-sook is an impeccable housekeeper, ensuring the Park home is spotless, that their meals are beautifully prepared, and that their every single whim is met.
As I say, the Kims aren’t lazy – and they aren’t bad people, either: all you have to do is look at their relationships with one another to see that. They’re easy and relaxed in each other’s company, and they love and trust one another implicitly.
What the Kims are, though, is trapped. Trapped by their class status, by the lack of opportunity for financial progression, by wider circumstances which they cannot control. The Park home? That’s the goal, the aspiration. Society has told the Kims that, if they are good and work hard enough, they can have their own home on the hills someday.
As all too many people will know first-hand, however, this proves to be a lie.
What has Bong Joon-ho said about Parasite’s underlying message?
No spoilers here, but the ending of Parasite is a gut punch to the stomach – one which almost feels like a relief after the film’s slow-building dread. And, talking to Vulture, Bong Joon-ho has done his best to explain the messaging of his “cruel and sad” story.
“I’m not making a documentary or propaganda here,” he said. “It’s not about telling you how to change the world or how you should act because something is bad, but rather showing you the terrible, explosive weight of reality.
“That’s what I believe is the beauty of cinema.”
Does Parasite live up to the hype?
Abso-bloody-lutely. Every single thing about this film – from the plot and the production design, to the acting, the editing and the music – is impeccable. And, while Parasite’s messaging is deeply enlightening, it remains uproarious, too.
No wonder, then, that Parasite is absolutely was named Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars.
Images: CJ Entertainment
Please note: this article was updated on 10 February 2020.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.
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