Co-writer/director Bong Joon-ho’s black-comic drama is the first Korean movie to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why, as this is amongst the most beautifully-made, uncomfortably funny and dangerous movies of the year.
Joon-ho, who often tends towards the bizarre and science fictional (like his The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja), sidesteps the fantastic here with a story that’s very human, full of particularly Korean humour and scary satire, and extremely difficult to discuss without giving the game away.
Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, a frequent Joon-ho collaborator) is an unemployed driver who lives in a cramped and cluttered basement apartment with his wife Choong Sook (Jang Hye-jin) and their college-age kids Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-Dam). Their living conditions recall the clan in the Japanese Shoplifters and they’re low on money, which means that they fold pizza boxes for a pittance and, in an early scene, gather round the loo to steal a wi-fi signal.
Ki-woo meets old friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), who’s leaving a job tutoring the daughter of a rich family, and he suggests that Ki-woo take the position, which would involve faking a university qualification (the poor lad is a bit dim). However, he charms Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), the snobby, squeamish mother of the house, and is soon helping teenager Da-hye (Jung Ji-so) prepare for exams, although they eventually start smooching, something made extra risky by the exhausting activities of Da-hye’s bratty little brother Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon).
When Ki-woo, in a rare moment of inspiration, sees a chance to sneak the rest of his family into gigs at the gorgeous Park house (a residence designed and built by an internationally-renowned artist), a series of crafty tricks lead to them all working there with no one aware of the fact that they’re related. And while they sometimes seem like criminals, and what they’re doing is certainly wrong, are they? Especially alongside the Parks, including the often absent Dad (Lee Sun-kyun), who’s scarcely a good guy himself?
Just when you think you have a handle on Joon-ho’s film, however, and you mistakenly assume you know why this is called Parasite (or Gisaengchung), it takes a turn though, and becomes an even richer and more profound study of the whole concept of the ‘return of the repressed’. And it’s also seriously, if strangely, amusing: there are almost slapstick sequences about public urination and mysterious undies, a toilet messily overflows and, amazingly, one character imitates Kim Jong-un and jokes about North Korea’s supposed nuclear weapons (!!!).
And who cares if the Kims are baddies – or even parasites? They’re a family!