Class Act | Parasite Hits Theaters

Acerbic and witty, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is equal parts Dickens and Tarantino

Update: At the Academy Awards 2020 “Parasite” got the Oscars for Best Picture, Directing, International Film Feature Film and Writing. Enjoy our review from October 2019.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; technology and trade have allowed for an unprecedented standard of living, yet only a select few have the means to fully enjoy it – everyone else can’t seem to claw their way up. And while inequality today hasn’t quite reached Victorian standards (yet), it was only a matter of time before it inspired another great work of social criticism.

Lucky for us, director Bong Joon Ho stepped up with Parasite, winner of this year’s palme d’or in Cannes by unanimous decision; what could easily have descended into pathos or politicizing instead walks the razor’s edge between sympathy and grotesque; dark, titillating fun impeccably executed with a slick, pop-cultural polish.

Set in Bong’s native South Korea, the Kims are pretty much at rock bottom: all four of them – father, mother, son and daughter – are unemployed and living in a semi-basement, chasing free wifi signals with their cancelled smartphones, folding pizza boxes and shooing away the drunks that inadvertently try to urinate against their windows.

Their luck changes when son Ki-Woo is recommended by a friend as an English tutor for the daughter of a very wealthy family, the Parks – despite having zero qualifications. Ki-Woo manages to bluff and charm his way into the lucrative position, and then immediately works to get his sister Ki-Jung employed as an art therapist. One by one, the Kims manage to con their way into the Park household – always under false pretenses, but with exemplary teamwork and an uncanny knack for meeting the rich-but-naive family’s needs.

Upstairs Downstairs

This in itself would have made for a highly entertaining social satire, but Bong goes the extra mile, embarking on a wild series of plot twists once his setting is established. It would be a shame to give away the many surprises in store – suffice to say things don’t go quite as planned for the Kims.

Always choosing the path less traveled, Parasite delights by never going the way you expect, making subtle yet scathing commentary on wealth, poverty and class along the way. At one point, father Ki-Taek marvels at the fact that the Parks are rich, but still nice. His wife Chung-Sook corrects him: they’re nice because they’re rich. Wealth is like an iron, smoothing the wrinkles and creases out of a person’s soul. And while Bong’s sympathy falls squarely on the side of the modern Lumpenproletariat, none of the characters come off as truly monstrous, despite the many bad intentions, dastardly deeds and thoughtless acts of upper class indifference. At worst, they’re either warped by circumstances, oblivious or rendered callous by privilege. Rich or poor, ultimately, we’re all humans degraded by an inhumane system. Maxim Gorky would have been proud.

 Now playing, Burgkino. 1., Opernring 19,

Binu Starnegg
Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub

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