DIRECTOR : Bong Joon Ho

WRITER  :  The Director & Jin Won Han

CAST :  Woo-sik Choi, Kang-Ho Song , Hye-jin Jang , Sun-kyun Lee , Yeo-jeong Jo

South Korean ( English subtitles available)  2019 


Normally I do not give a caraway seed about the usually timid Oscars. But 2020 is the Year of The Lord – an epoch when amongst other wonders, the Yankee jury decides to finally detonate the glass ceiling and give a foreign movie the Best Picture Oscar after 91 years of pushing it up the side of English language movies. Director and Co-writer Bong Joon Ho crashes the seas as The quasi-Mongol Viking who consummates the cultural cross-over by spearing in a mordantly merciless drama about intra-societal tension. ‘Parasite’ depicts a poor family sneakily racking up its advantages by working for a rich family , before the wages of subterfuge begin to crush the pennies of luck. Few other film I have watched are as powerful at exposing how brutally careless and insensitive many of the rich can get as they sashay about their lordly lives, and the dejection and want that gnaws at the low-income people as they wait stoically upon the former. There’s a catch here and that’s what elevates the film – the latter are not exactly martyrs and we see them doing their bit to maintain the cycle. What starts with ample shades of subversive comedy and screwball humour, steadily simmers and then explodes, before bleeding through and through into a beautifully elegiac meditation on upward mobility. An electric story and superb acting aside, what is most refreshing about the film is its splendidly elegant wide-screen cinematography. Such spectacularly good visuals and production design would no doubt have additionally coaxed the Academy to anoint this outsider the insider.   


Pic’s opening segment neatly slices open Seoul’s bowels to reveal the gulf.  A middle-aged couple and their girl and boy (both in the first flush of adulthood) live in a bottom-rung basement apartment in the city’s boondocks. Their living room window opens directly at ground-level onto the street outside where liberated gentlemen urinate in the open. If it rains heavily, the street can flood and fill their house with sewage water. The youngster Kim Ki-woo ( Woo-sik Choi ) is craftier and more able than his penurious father and soon scores the job of a tutor at a mansion in the city’s upscale suburb. The rich couple are in their last stages of youth with a young brat and a teenage daughter. The modernistic house is stunning in its large rooms and lush lawns. Sucked into this luxe life if only for a few hours each day, Ki-woo begins to scheme. The house has staff for various purposes so why not get his deserving family members a shot at the good life too ?  What Kim doesn’t know is that there are layers - physical, mental, social -  to people who have been in his position before. Acts explode into blunders that mushroom into nightmares and then slowly steadily suddenly there’s no going back…


‘Gisaengchung’ , like many other top-tier Korean movies ( there are so many of them from this fascinating country ), cares a fig about restraint. There are shameless sexual scenes ( not very explicit here though ) which many other mainstream cinema cultures would hesitate to portray so directly. The story is fearless about moving in unchartered territory and then taking dizzying turns – other writers and directors in other neck of the woods would likely be barred from veering off so carefreely, by cowardly producers ( an exception would be a Brit-Hollywood animal like ‘American Beauty’) . None of the characters are prettified – they are what they are – human beings with needs, shame , anger and cunning.

Splendorously precise cinematography makes the film a consistent joy to watch. The lighting is excellent, the frames have a generous aesthetic which can only come from the lenser and helmer having unmistakable good taste, and visual clarity is akin to a cracking crisp copper kettle potato chip. Cool production design adds to the mellow mix. The mansion, designed from scratch by Bong Joon Ho & Co, is a vast sanctum , minimalist in design. The living room is big enough to be a prayer hall for fifty people and it leads open-plan to the dining area at the back the highlight of which is a wall-to-wall lighted cabinet gleaming with crockery. Somewhere nearby is the wormhole which will blow this story upside down.

Initially, the black humour keeps the story going with wicked entertainment provided by a series of life-wrecking tricks perpetrated by a schemer. The viewer somehow tags along, perhaps or perhaps not commiserating with the bowels from which this underdog Kim family has sprung. And then a scene showing Ki-woo, his sister, mother and father – reveling like they never have – brings the first cold splash of perspective. Loosened by alcohol, we see the fragility of the union between the father Ki-taek ( a superbly controlled and poignantly nuanced Kang-ho Song) and mother Chung-sook ( Hye-jin Jang). The house-keeper is shell-shocked about a personal apocalypse at a later stage  and we see her rich employer breezily going on about party arrangements while instructing her  – it is one of the movie’s quietly whistling arrows about one party ( I won’t say “class” as it stupid and demeaning to define class by money) being clueless about the suffering of the other. And then there’s the story’s lurking physical and moral monster – not touched upon in this review so as to elide spoilers – which slices open the country’s unique past and the head-shaking predicament of its woe-begone stragglers who missed the bus of the South Korean tiger economy.

There is a rage in this movie – a seething exhortation to be more understanding and more helpful to those less fortunate, but I also see that rage in Bong’s vision, as the same forceful factor that helped South Korea propel its fortunes in 1960s and 1970s. Also, Bong’s idea is not a crudely simple “ the rich torture the poor “ sketch  - it is broader in its biting humanism. The film’s later turns are gob-smacking in their nuclear impact – Bong does not pull his punches, showing just how merciless and insane life’s complications can get for those who do not have money. The thematic choice towards the ending echoes the finale of movies like South Korea’s own “The Chaser” – there is no hesitation or cowardice in the gut punch delivered – these are not ‘safe’ movies. That’s why it is stunning ‘Parasite’ broke so many audience barriers. In the age of Todd Phillip’s ‘Joker’, perhaps that is not so surprising. But for those with their minds smashed by the carnage, Bong inspiringly comes up with some truly magical fairy dust which he sprinkles on the last scenes. That sentiment just swirls into eternity.  




UPNWORLD welcomes your comments.