Bong Joon-ho’s Korean drama is a damning indictment of the social divide, writes Paul Whitington
It has been a rare treat to watch Parasite ride so high in the awards season. Since winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes last summer, it's garnered Golden Globes, BAFTAs and has become the first non-English speaking film to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
This is a rare feat for a foreign language film, and some optimists even think Bong Joon-ho's movie has an outside chance of winning Best Picture. If it does, justice will have been served because it's one of the best and most original films of the past few years.
Most refreshing of all perhaps is the fact that it dodges genres, defies easy categorisation. It's an angry film, with a stern, though wittily transmitted, political agenda that reminded me of Dickens, in which two families at either end of South Korea's social scale become locked on a collision course. Parasite starts out as a satire, a salty social comedy, but midway through, the plot picks up at an alarming pace as it heads for darker territory.
Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is the cheerfully slothful patriarch of the Kim family, who live in a cramped, below-street-level flat with a window that offers inspiring views of passing pedestrians' feet. He, his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) make ends meet by making pizza boxes, but are hardly living in luxury.
They stand on stools and toilets in an effort to get Wi-fi on their phones, passing drunks wee against their windows and their mildewy flat is infested by cockroaches. In the film's most apocalyptic scene, a tropical rain storm will overflow the sewers, causing much unpleasantness for the Kims.
Ki-taek, though, is a stubborn optimist who believes salvation is just around the corner, and he's proved right when Ki-woo stumbles on a lucrative opportunity.
An old school friend has been tutoring the teenage daughter of a wealthy family, and suggests that Ki-woo take over. He has no PhD but that's not a problem because his sister Ki-jeong is a whiz at forging them. And when Ki-woo turns up at the home of the Park family, he realises he's on the pig's back.
The Parks live in a palatial, ultra-modern home with vast, spacious rooms and a huge wall-window overlooking a pristine lawn. His student Da-yae (Jeong Ji-so) is a sweet girl who soon falls in love with him, her hard-working father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) is rarely home and when he is, lies about the place, and her mother Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) is a beautiful, ditsy woman who believes everything she's told.
Before you know it, Ki-woo has got a job for his sister Ki-jeong as an 'art therapist' to the Parks' obstreperous little boy, Ki-taek has become the family's chauffeur and Chung-sook has usurped the Parks' long-serving housekeeper. But the Parks have no idea that their four new employees are related, and that their home has been infested.
There are no angels or demons in Bong Joon-ho's film: though entitled, super-wealthy, the Parks are not unpleasant people, and though the Kims deserve a break, their methods leave much to be desired. The symbolism in Parasite is unsubtle, but powerful: subterranean dwellers, the Kims are a literal underclass, while the Parks almost inhabit the clouds, believe that the poor have a distinctive smell, and have no concept of want.
"They are rich, but still nice," Ki-taek says at one point. "They are nice because they are rich," Chung-sook replies, by which she means their decency costs them nothing. Being poor in proximity to wealth is a recipe for trouble, and once the Kims get a taste of the good life, they're not keen on relinquishing it.
Invented by the British, perfected by the United States, laissez-faire capitalism has never really gone away, and the intellectually dishonest American theory that those who work hard always get ahead, while those who are poor deserve it, has been globalised by neo-liberalism.
Huge iniquity is now the norm, and while Parasite is far too clever and witty a film to descend to preaching, Bong Joon-ho does seem to be suggesting that unless we do something about these huge economic imbalances, more bloody wars and revolutions are surely on the way.
Bong Joon-ho's previous work, in English and Korean, has been impressive, but in scope and scale, Parasite dwarfs all those achievements. It's a splendid film, beautifully acted and realised, which manages to be both entertaining and profound.
Above all, it makes you think, and when was the last time you were afflicted by that sensation in a cinema?
Parasite (16, 132mins) - 5 stars
Films coming soon...
Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Miranda Hart, Rupert Graves); Sonic The Hedgehog (James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Ben Schwartz, Neal McDonough); Jihad Jane (Colleen LaRose, Jamie Paulin Ramirez); The Call Of The Wild (Harrison Ford).
Birds of Prey (16, 109mins) - 2 stars
The DC Extended Universe staggers aimlessly on in this noisy, nasty sequel to Suicide Squad. Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn was the best thing about that film and, here, takes centre stage. Harley's drowning her sorrows after breaking up with Joker when she falls foul of a ruthless Gotham crime boss called Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who's looking for a missing diamond. So Harley joins forces with a pickpocket, a high-kicking singer and a female ninja to battle Sionis. Though it hides its sneer behind a half-arsed feminist agenda, Birds Of Prey is messy, lazy and needlessly unpleasant.
Dolittle (16, 109mins) - 2 stars
What do you do after Avengers? This is the vexing first-world problem currently bedevilling Robert Downey Jr, who must now exist in a post-Stark universe. And on the evidence of this outing, it could be a rocky ride. He is John Dolittle, the fabled 19th century vet who can talk to animals, but has spent years holed up in his country menagerie following his wife's death. Duty calls when Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) falls ill from poisoning, and only a tropical expedition can save her. This is a rickety, badly planned film, full of lazy Cgi, plot non-sequiturs and dodgy Welsh accents, not least Mr Downey's.
Underwater (15A, 95mins)- 2 stars
A kind of aquatic Alien rip-off (and not the first), this gloomy adventure is set six miles below the western Pacific at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) is the Ellen Ripley of the piece, an engineer on an undersea mining station who's going about her business in the bathroom when she hears a suspicious drip. It's the sea, which is about blow a hole in the wall, destroying the vast undersea structure and leaving Norah and friends to face a battle for survival. This is silly stuff and very hard to follow: in the Mariana Trench, no one can hear you scream, but no one can bloody see you either.