Families on the lower end of the pay scale have proven fertile ground for filmmakers at Cannes of late, from Kore-eda’s Shoplifters to Ken Loach’s latest Sorry We Missed You. But you’d be hard-put to find anything with the acerbic brilliance of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a masterful dissection of social inequality and the psychology of money.
Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) is a young man with few prospects. He lives in a semi-basement apartment with his dishevelled and dissolute dad Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), his snappy mum Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) and his smart sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam). It’s cramped – the toilet is on a kind of shelf – and they score free wi-fi from their neighbours and fold boxes for a pizza delivery company, but Ki-woo has a plan when a university friend offers him the opportunity to take over a student.
Faking a university diploma and a backstory, Ki-woo introduces himself to a wealthy family living in a spacious deluxe house with an ample lawn where he becomes the tutor to Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the young daughter of wealthy CEO Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and his ‘simple’ wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong). Not content with one subterfuge, Ki-woo connives to introduce Ki-jung as an art teacher for the young son.
At first, there is a sense of justified scamming. This is, after all, a society in which hundreds of university graduates apply for a job as a security guard, Ki-taek argues. And there’s also Ki-woo’s affirmation that he’ll go to university sooner or later so really the forgery is just putting in the paperwork in advance. It also helps that the Parks are so venal in their own social prejudices, with their occasional drops into English and Mr. Parks’ speeches about servants ‘crossing the line’ that you can’t help feeling they’re complicit in their own deception. But this is not a victimless crime as the family contrive to have a driver dismissed in order to free up the position for dad – now Mr. Kim – and loyal housekeeper, to make room for mum.
The almost perfectly executed plan seems to have succeeded when scriptwriters Bong and Han Jin-won introduce a further twist that reveals that this family is not the first to have such a parasitic latching on. The smooth heist of identities in the first half gives way to an increasingly fractious farce complete with people hiding under beds and slithering across the hardwood floors to avoid discovery. The farce escalates into something more sinister and bloody. Bong’s regular cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (who also shot last year’s The Burning) frames the two locations of the semi-basement and the mansion with social realism in one and cool precision in the other. An epic torrential rain is seen from overhead like a malevolent God looking down at a second flood.
There’s something of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground here, and even Kafka’s Metamorphosis as the ‘parasites’ are compared to cockroaches and in one scene as they squirm in their hiding places they seem to transform into insects. But this a sharp social satire with none of the comedy diminishing the tragic consequences of such an ossified class system. Ki-woo’s family are morally bankrupt – they had no money to begin with – and they are con artists who most obviously con themselves, even as they seek to lie their way into money and comfort.
The 72nd Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty