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The rich are getting richer and leaving the rest of us behind. Filmmakers have taken notice.
Parasite is the latest in a slew of recent films dealing with the thorny topic of class inequality alongside the likes of Joker, Ready or Not and Us. It’s no wonder the Korean film is doing so well, having secured six Oscar nominations, because this is the most incisive of the bunch. Bong Joon-ho tackles the subject matter with grace and intelligence but not before having some fun.
Parasite follows a family of four, struggling to get by in a cramped semi-basement apartment, when an opportunity arises for the elder son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) to make some money tutoring a rich girl. All it takes are a few forged university papers to trick the gullible mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) and he’s in.
The luxurious house with its modern aesthetic serves as a stark contrast to the deceptive tutor’s underground home. The haves and the have-nots live in completely different worlds, one with large glass walls overlooking lush gardens and the other with narrow windows looking up onto a street of pissing drunks.
Ki-woo’s infiltration triggers a heist of sorts. The family prove themselves an expert set of con-artists as they plot to oust the existing staff and secure the comfortable jobs for themselves. It’s a carefully weaved web of lies and deceit, Ocean’s Eleven on an intimate scale.
Driving, cleaning and tutoring for a rich family almost seems like a dream come true for our protagonists. They’re having fun but, make no mistake, are ruthless in their drive to get ahead while their blissfully ignorant employers appear trusting and generous. Then again, they can afford to be.
Through the metaphor of a bouncy, upbeat heist, Bong Joon Ho illustrates the rat race the working class have no choice but to run in. In a desperate bid to survive and provide for their families, working stiffs just got to turn on each other.
It can only stay fun for so long and it wouldn’t be a Bong Joon-ho film if there weren’t some sharp tonal shifts – his films often veer from absurd comedy to social realism. It’s around the midpoint that Parasite takes a turn to the horrific before evolving into something poetic and urgent with the formal precision only a master filmmaker can pull off.
It’s a clear critique of capitalism, illustrating the abject horror of allowing so much wealth to concentrate in the hands of the few while the many fight not for their fair share but among each other just for the opportunity to serve the better off.
Song Kang-ho is the perfect vessel to channel this critique through. He plays the dad Kim Ki-taek who ends up driving for the wealthy family. Song’s a versatile actor who can throw himself into slapstick set pieces in one scene and then convey deep humanity in the next. It’s in his character we feel a deep fury simmer over the course of the film, a visceral gut response to the injustice on display as those who work no less suffer hardships the wealthy appear completely indifferent to.
But who’s to blame here? Who’s the titular parasite? Aren’t the rich family providing employment for everyone else? At least that’s the way they see it.
Rather than treat rampant inequality as justification for violent revolt, Parasite sees violence as an unavoidable consequence of an unjust system. This isn’t a call to arms. It’s just a fact. There’s only so long you can leech off the working class before they shake you off.