Bong Joon-ho has returned to Cannes with a luxuriously watchable and satirical suspense drama. It runs as purringly smooth as the Mercedes driven by the lead character, played by Korean star Song Kang-ho. Parasite is a bizarre black comedy about social status, aspiration, materialism and the patriarchal family unit, and people who accept the idea of having (or leasing) a servant class.
Parasite is about a wealthy Korean family in a modern-day Downton Abbey upstairs-downstairs situation, one far more unstable than the patrician caste realises. The film could perhaps be a bit more lean and mean, and deliver its jeopardy and payoff with more despatch. But it is an enjoyable, elegant, scabrous movie about a mix of servitude and trickery that is an interesting theme in Korean cinema.
The film, which is sumptuously designed, could be compared with, say, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, an adaptation of the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Walters; and also Im Sang-son’s 2010 Cannes entry The Housemaid, a remake of Kim Ki-Young’s classic Korean thriller from 1960. Also notable is the film’s focus on poverty, desperation and the phenomenon of those in debt having to vanish to escape creditors (also a theme in Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 film Burning).
Song Kang-ho plays Ki-taek, a shiftless, unemployed man who lives in a chaotic, stinky and squalid basement with his wife, Chung-sook, his smart yet cynical twentysomething daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik). They are all out of work and out of cash. Then Ki-woo gets a stroke of fortune: an old school-friend helps him get a lucrative tutoring job. With a fake college diploma created by Ki-jung, he shows up at the fabulously lavish home of the Park family, wealthy entrepreneur Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyun), his delicate, unworldly wife, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), their teen daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ziso) and her wacky kid brother, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). They have a loyal, live-in housekeeper named Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee).
Likable Ki-woo is an instant hit with his new employers and his demure pupil Da-hye gets a real crush on him, which the coolly ruthless Ki-woo does nothing to discourage. Then the distrait lady of the house, Yeon-kyo, reveals that she also needs an art tutor for her young son, to mould his painting talents; Ki-woo suggests his sister (while concealing their relationship), and soon the brazen Ki-jung is also a success with these rich suckers. It looks as if the wealthy Parks could be a meal ticket for the whole crooked family, all pretending to be complete strangers to each other. But little-kid Da-song has noticed something that the grownups haven’t: why do these people smell the same?
The servant is someone with an intimate knowledge of his or her employer, and yet this intimacy is so easily – and inevitably – poisoned with resentment. There is a licensed transgression in servitude, and this transgression is nightmarishly amplified when it is a question of a entire family seeking to get up close and personal. The poorer family see themselves in a distorting mirror that cruelly reveals to them how wretched they are by contrast and reveals the riches that could – and should – be theirs. It is almost a supernatural or sci-fi story; an invasion of the lifestyle snatchers. Parasite gets its tendrils into you.