I went to see Parasite based on the ebullient praise the film has received despite knowing nothing about it. Parasite is a well-crafted, logical film, with excellent performances all-around. Having said that, I found Parasite troubling and quite unpleasant, a film whose character motivations I could understand and even sympathize with while still thinking them revolting.
The Kim family lives on the edge of poverty, if not past that edge. Son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) is gifted a landscape rock meant to bring fortune from his friend Min (Seu-joon Park) and a potential job as a fake English tutor to the wealthy Park family, specifically the daughter Da-hyeh (Jung Ziso). After successfully passing the interview with Madame (Yeo-jeong Jo), Ki-woo or 'Kevin' as they call him notices that the Park son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung) might need some 'therapy'.
One by one, through rather shady means, the entire Kim family starts finding employment with the oblivious yet pleasant Park family. Ki-woo finds "Jessica" to be Da-song's art therapist, not mentioning that "Jessica" is his sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Further machinations get the Park family driver fired, with Kim family patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) as the new driver. The coup de grace is getting the longtime housekeeper Moon-gwan (Jeong-eun Lee) fired so that Kim family matriarch Chung-sook (Hyae Jing Chang) can take her place.
The Kims celebrate their success, having a drunken party when the Parks leave for a camping trip to celebrate Da-song's birthday. It's at this point that Moon-gwan returns during a thunderstorm, saying she was fired so fast that she left something behind.
Once she comes back into the Park mansion, things take one wild and shocking turn after another. To tell more would be giving things away, but suffice to say that among other plot points in Parasite we have ghost sightings, blackmail, floods and general chaos, culminating in a murderous birthday garden party. Some live, some die, and some become hidden within the bowels of opulence.
Writer/director Bong Joon-ho (writing with Han Jin Won) crafted an exception story, one that adds elements of symbolism with an understanding of human nature. He for example does not paint either the Kim or Park families as horrible people. The closest is when Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) mentions to his wife that their driver has a particular odor, a notion that was mentioned prior. This was meant to be heard in as a private, intimate moment but which, due to circumstances the Kim family overhears. At the garden birthday party, this element returns to murderous results.
It makes the confusion and horror of the garden party understandable and even logical. I also think Parasite leaves it up to audiences if members think it was 'right'.
Parasite deftly balances and shifts comedy to horror. The audience I saw it with were laughing one moment, silenced into shock the very next moment. That delicate balance between humor and horror works exceptionally well in the film.
Bong gave the actors great roles, as these were people who seemed genuinely real with very little to no exaggeration about how they were and behaved. The Kim family's actions are entirely comprehensible (even if I find them equally reprehensible). Their financial need drove them to their acts, but their arrogance was also off-putting, so if I was meant to cheer them on, I couldn't. The Park family for their part were pleasant but also a bit detached from things, and again I figure Mr. Park was meant to be something akin to a villain given his repulsion at the literal stench of poverty.
I can't sympathize with his reactions, but I cannot condone his fate either. Same for Moon-gwang, as while her motives are perhaps the 'purest' she too was not above some nefarious work to keep what she had. To be honest, she is the character I thought best of given that her reasons, at least initially, were to my mind the most moral.
The performances are all excellent, as every actor portrayed his or her character with the appropriate balance of humor and heart, sometimes heartlessness. From Madame's naïve to almost innocent manner to Moon-gwang's desperation, from Mr. Kim's mostly decent manner to Mr. Park's equally mostly decent manner, the cast did so well.
Bong also had wonderful moments and montages, coordinating Jaeil Jung's score with the duplicity of the Kim family. His use of symbolism from the landscape rock eventually crashing down upon one of them to two sets of servants finding the basements are leading to death is also excellent work.
My sense is that Parasite is meant to give a message about the economic state of Koreans, the charming obliviousness of the wealthy to the poor both within and without their employ. When Mr. Kim comments that Madame is "rich but also nice", Mrs. Kim won't have it, insisting Madame is "nice because she is rich".
There are some films that one can admire and respect while still finding somewhat off-putting. Parasite is that kind of film for me. It's an exceptionally well-made film, with strong performances and an engaging story that goes into sometimes bonkers territory. However, I found our protagonists rather horrible people whom I could not cheer on in any way. I could understand why they did as they did and felt terrible about their collective fate.
In short, Parasite is a film that both entertains and makes one think.
2020 Best Picture Winner: Nomadland