When, many, many months ago, the distributors of Bong Joon Ho’s latest — winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes — decided to release their film in early February, they probably gambled they’d be bouncing off the odd Oscar nomination and the occasional critics’ group win. If anything, the plan has gone too well.
Having watched Parasite win all those professional guild awards and become the second-favourite for best picture at the Oscars, cinemagoers, worn down by Bong memes, may feel a tad resentful that it’s only now arriving in cinemas. This is like that time your dad had to wait eight months for Star Wars to open.
Do not be deterred. The director of The Host and Memories of Murder has excelled himself with a social satire that employs the techniques of farce to head-spinning effect. There is anger here at the inequalities in Korean society.
Bong Joon Ho, who shares screenwriting duties with Han Jin Won, looks to be arguing for the imminence of an apocalypse. What really hooks you, however, is the gorgeous smoothness of the narrative machinery. We get jolts. We are not short of shocks. But, as in all the best farce, the surprises ultimately seem preordained. Where else could we be headed?
The set-up is the stuff of fairy stories. We go among a handful of socially excluded chancers living in a “half-basement” on the wrong side of the tracks (think of them as a madder version of the family in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, last year’s Palme d’Or winner, and you’re halfway there).
When Kim Ki Woo (Choi Woo Shik), sly grown son, wrangles an unearned job as English teacher to a privileged teenager, his siblings and parents plot to dislodge the rest of the staff and perch themselves in the poshos' suburban mansion. Kim Ki Taek (Song Kang Ho), gruff paterfamilias, becomes the chauffeur. Kim Ki Jeong (Park So Dam), cool daughter, poses as an art tutor.
Eventually the family are running the property while the owners remain unaware that any staff member is related to any other. Royalty have always been awash with social-climbing fakers. Nobody here counts as a Rasputin, but the levels of gullibility are comparable.
The film takes an equivocal attitude to the well-off couple. Park Dong Ik (Lee Sun Kyun) and Yeon Gyo (Jo Yeo Jeong), husband and wife, are neither evil nor stupid, but their privilege has dulled them to the realities of the neoliberal universe. Yeon Gyo is easily fooled because, cocooned by wealth, she has little reason to be suspicious.
The harassed underclass, by contrast, have learned to be wary of every opening door and plan their evasions in advance. What a perfect microcosm of the class divide.
Bong and his team have thought long and hard about visual contrasts between the two worlds. Architect Namgoong Hyeonja has designed an icily perfect living machine for the ruling snoots. Every line is straight. Every angle is clean. The house does an excellent job of shutting out the messy realities of how the other 95 percent lives. In contrast, the crafty Dickensian hustlers cram into a cluttered hovel that floods when the rains come in.
The disparities are sometimes a little too stark — the poor seem more “alive” than the rich — but the pace of the plotting nudges any such concerns into the brain’s holding room. A crasser critic than this one might argue it’s Pasolini’s Teorema transferred to Fawlty Towers. That sharp humour takes in even the terse, perfectly judged title. Obviously, the invading family count as one sort of parasite. Bong trusts we will then attach the word to a complacent elite that has forgotten the driving impulses of the human zoo.
Maybe we’re all parasites. Maybe we don’t deserve such exquisite entertainment. One way or another, it’s finally here.
Opens on February 7th