If Bong Joon Ho had just made ‘Memories of Murder’, one of the most thrilling films of the 21st century, we would still regard him as cinema’s great. Then, he went on to make ‘Mother’, ‘The Host’, and ‘Snowpeircer’, only reaffirming his vast talent. And now, with his latest offering, ‘Parasite’, he truly has inked his name as one of the greatest filmmakers of this generation. After a middling effort in the form of ‘Okja’, he returns to his Korean roots to give us a film that might very well be his best work till date.
When ‘Parasite’ won Palme d’or this year at Cannes Film Festival, I was mildly surprised. Bong has always been known to make genre films, and Cannes history suggests that Palme d’or winners are hardly ever that. But now that I have seen the film, I know why. ‘Parasite’ in many ways is a genre film, but at the same time, calling it just a “genre” film would also be wrong. I would like to take a pause here and mention that I have nothing against genre films. Quentin Tarantino is a living proof that genre films can be great too; they sometimes can offer pleasures that drama films can’t. With that said, ‘Parasite’ is more than a genre film because it is also a scathing commentary on the pitfalls of materialism. It’s also about the class divide between rich and poor, a theme that’s common among all Bong’s films.
The glibness with which ‘Parasite’ first puts you at ease and then pulls the rug out from under your feet is amazingly clever even for a Bong film. Once the stage is set, the characters are introduced, the surprises keep coming. At one moment you have a smile on your face, and then the very next moment your jaw is on the floor. After a point, you just submit yourself to Bong’s wild vision and enjoy the ride like a roller coaster.
‘Parasite’ revolves around Ki-taek, who is jobless, and his hopeless family that comprises of his supportive wife, Chung-sook his cynical daughter, Ki-jung, and his college-age son, Ki-woo. All of them somehow get by living in a basement-level apartment. One day, Ki-woo’s friend offers him a position of an English teacher for the teenage daughter of the rich Park family. Ki-woo not only accepts the offer and joins the position at Park family’s home, but also devices plans to bring in his sister, his father and mother under the guise of art teacher, driver and housekeeper respectively. But the family’s plan to live like a parasite soon goes haywire and madness eschews.
I haven’t recently come across a more apt title to a movie than “Parasite”. It’s almost as if Bong Jong Ho came up with the title first and then decided to weave a satire on materialism around it. Ki-taek’s family is poor, but poverty is not their fault. What is their fault, though, is their laziness and greed. And it seems, Bong Jong Ho is also saying to the unprivileged people that instead of getting jealous of the materialism that rich exhibit, why not work hard and have an ambition in life.
What makes ‘Parasite’ so memorable is that it gives a serious message without ever taking itself seriously. So, for a disarmed viewer, some of the scenes might feel outlandish to the point of being unbelievable. But Bong Jong Ho knows exactly what he is doing. The whole point of the film is to first make you believe in its authenticity and then to completely shatter your preconceived notions by taking you to the edge of believability. And for that, Bong Jong Ho deserves full marks and a Best Foreign Language Oscar.