This is where I get all smug and talk about how I remember when “The Host” was released, and in fact I’ve owned the DVD for well over a decade now. And at that time I wanted to see “Barking Dogs Never Bite” as it starred Bae Doo-na, who was popular among me at the time; and I’d heard “Memories of Murder” was worth a watch, but my limited attempts never found an available copy – a film that now seems criminally under-promoted in the UK. But after the release of 2009’s “Mother”, as I am neither a Netflix or Jamie Bell subscriber, Joon-ho Bong’s name hasn’t been in my consciousness a great deal over the last decade.
Until about a year ago, when talk was of his latest work being really quite good – tipped, and then fulfilling promise, to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Now South Korean cinema is all popular and that and Oscars are being won – breaking new ground along the way.
But, despite my interest in his first two feature length films, I have still yet to see either. “The Host” was an entertaining film, but is somewhat clunky in parts; and the dancing on the bus finale from “Mother” stayed in my memory, but I had to re-watch it to have my recollection of the rest of the film restored – a tidy little film. But, while good, he was not a director blowing my mind, and after a relatively meagre last decade in terms of the volume of output, I was surprised by both the hype surrounding “Parasite” and its ground-breaking achievements. Is it really all that and a bag of Oscars?
Well, the premise, is a nice one.
The Kims are a poor family living in a basement flat, looking out at the rest of the world from street level. They are more-or-less living in the gutter. Working by pre-folding pizza boxes for a local takeaway, they steal wifi off their neighbours or local businesses – the toilet their wifi hotspot. The son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), has two things going for him: while completing his military service, he learnt English to a good standard; and his friend Min (Seo-joon Park), a suave and sophisticated young gentleman about to travel abroad.
While he is away, Min asks Ki-woo if he can take over his role as the wealthy Park family’s daughter Da-hye’s (Ji-so Jung) English teacher. Ki-woo will be able to pass as an English teacher, and as a failed college applicant, poses little threat to Min’s designs on Da-hye. Enlisting his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) to forge college certificates for him, Ki-woo goes for an interview with Park mother Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), exploiting her simple, wealthy naivety.
Quickly, Ki-woo learns that the son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung) also needs a new art teacher and recommends his sister for the role, though denies their family connection, of course. Through mischief, Ki-woo and Ki-jung soon get their father, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), recruited as the father Dong-ik’s (Sun-kyun Lee) driver and their mother, Ching-sook (Hye-jin Yang), as housemaid. Soon, the Kims occupy the splendidly modern house as much as the Parks, unbeknownst to their hosts.
But ousted housemaid Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee) returns when the host family are away, finding the Kims enjoying a night of luxury, unearthing a dark secret kept within the house. Complacently, their cover is blown, and the Kims must do what it takes to keep their real identity, among other things, hidden.
As stated, “The Host” was an entertaining film, though like any comedy, can have moments where the script feels a little clunky/awkward/Swiss cheese. “Mother” was a step up in overall quality, with better storytelling, while maintaining entertainment value. With “Parasite”, Bong has created a near perfect balance of good storytelling with entertainment value. The first hour is an introduction to each of the nine central characters in what is quite a light comedy drama about con artists.
But throughout, Bong leaves subtle references to what will become the film’s climax. These start off small, but gradually become more frequent, and when literal push comes to literal shove, the bubbles rise to the surface and boil over. Tension is brought in as we switch to the second half of the film, when the Kims start to enjoy imagining themselves in a life of luxury – another subtle hint, perhaps. Happy-go-lucky tricksters soon become criminals, with Bong pacing this development well.
In their showhome advert for the way of life of the mega rich, the Parks are not portrayed as horrible for it. Yeon-kyo is nice, if a little slow, and the Kims recognise this; Dong-ik is complimentary enough; and the two children are normal kids – Da-song deserving of some sympathy. The Kims are more relaxed and likeable, but also manipulative and criminal in their work. Here, the poor appear more immoral.
But, as things progress, the Parks begin to show their disgust at those from poorer backgrounds. What start off as seemingly minor comments about how Ki-taek smells, become more frequent references to it, comparing it to the smell of people on the subway, and we all know what that means. Ki-taek is increasingly disturbed by these comments, repeatedly hearing it on a stress-filled night, returning home to his flooded basement apartment. Dong-ik refers to Ki-taek getting close to crossing the line, and returning from his fantasy to his reality, it may be time for that move to be made.
Despite exploiting them, the Kims initially liked the Parks; but the more they get to know them, the more they realise the Parks will never truly like them back. The stunning view from the window of the Parks’ house is contrasted by the view from the gutter the Kims have from theirs, with Kyung-pyo Hong’s cinematography telling a story in itself. As the Kims are punished for their crimes, sympathy grows for them, and indeed their whole neighbourhood destroyed by flooding. While they try to rescue their children from the floodwater, the Parks casually watch over Da-song as he sleeps in his teepee in their garden – it won’t leak, it was ordered from America.
Both families are left scathed by the end, but which do you feel more sympathy for? Who was really exploiting who? Bong weaves these questions in subtly throughout, sucking you in.
Now, where’s that subsequent “Early Bong Blu-Ray Boxset” we all know is about to come?!