Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s dark comedy thriller Parasite made international news when it took the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, becoming the first Korean movie to do so and following a winner from another Asian country, Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Since then, it’s topped sales of well over $100 million internationally and smashed records at the U.S. box office. There’s even been some Oscar buzz about it being a contender for the Best Picture category. Not that this is really significant, of course, because, as Bong himself recently stated to the amusement of many, the Oscars are “very local.” Even so, the locals are becoming pretty familiar with his latest offering.
Parasite is just the kind of slow-burning, devastating masterpiece that you would expect to be scooping up awards at international film fests. It’s also a raucously fun piece of entertainment that was born to be an audience favorite. That it’s managed to blur the lines between arthouse and mainstream cinema, while also garnering popularity with both Korean and American moviegoers (as well as others), seems appropriate considering its focus on class struggles in South Korea, a country still affected by U.S. military involvement.
The movie starts off unassumingly enough. Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), whose family is scraping by in a dingy semi-basement apartment, manages to land a job tutoring Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), a girl who lives with her rich parents in a swanky, modern house. Upon meeting the Park family, Ki-woo quickly spots an opportunity to recommend his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), for a position teaching art to Da-hye’s younger brother, a supposedly troubled little boy named Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun). Ki-woo doesn’t present Ki-jung as his sibling but as a distant acquaintance, a move that lends credibility to her background. One thing leads to another, and soon the Kims are scheming to trick the Parks into employing all of them by vouching for one another with fake credentials and hiding their familial ties.
Watching the Kims scam their way into the Park family home is hilarious and reason enough in itself to see Parasite. Park So-dam especially is a delight to observe as Ki-Jung, who casually forges documents, wrangles a raise by passing herself off as a qualified art therapist, and impersonates a representative of a non-existent employment service over the phone.
Eventually, though, Parasite progresses from being a comedy about an elaborate con to something much more sinister and horrific. This progression doesn’t upset the overall feel of the film so much as it allows you to sink into the dark political underpinnings of the plot. Parasite lets us have our fun, while also raising deep questions concerning why we love stories about scrappy underdogs in the first place. It further emphasizes how the fantasy of stealing from and eventually replacing the wealthy isn’t a bug of modern class-based society, but a feature.
The American success of Parasite could lead to new ways of thinking about Asian representation in the U.S. and other countries with non-Asian majorities. After all, how welcoming a country is of foreign films, particularly from places where it has a history, can’t be entirely detached from how it feels about diversity in its own society. Also, as Bong’s own directing career shows through projects like Okja and Snowpiercer, which have employed non-Korean actors, cinema can be as international as we want it to be. But regardless of what the future holds, Parasite’s popularity around the globe is well deserved.