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Korean Cinema is an excellent go to for the jaded cinema goer. There’s some great films like Oldboy, The Host, The Chaser and Train to Busan that are well worth your time and better than a lot of the swill that comes from the States.
When short on inspiration, the US has looked to South Korean Cinema to remake their films for audiences too lazy to read and watch at the same time. They did it with Oldboy and recently Train to Busan was in the middle of a bidding war between studios keen for a US remake.
The rise of South Korean Cinema
It all kicked off in the mid 1940’s after World War 2 with themes of freedom and liberation permeating their content, however once the Korean War started in the early 50s that got shut down fairly quickly. During the mid 50’s right up to the early 70s the industry experienced a golden age, that was subject to heavy censorship from the government and mainly focussed on melodrama. Censorship peaked during the 70s, audiences rebelled and the industry went into a recovery period during the 80s right up to the mid 90s.
Since then South Korean Cinema has experienced a slow-burning renaissance, which has seen the rise of directors like Parasite’s Bong Joon Ho.
Parasite has made history nominated not just in the best International Film category at this year’s Oscars but also another five categories, including Best Picture, a first for South Korea.
A country that experienced an economic boom between the 60s and mid 90s which turned them into an economic powerhouse. Their population doubled and the education system flourished, rural people moved to the cities in the millions. The middle class emerged, the extended family system declined and people started having fewer children. Then when their economic growth slowed in 1997 they had to accept an economic bailout from the International Monetary Fund to the tune of $57 billion. Thanks to big businesses like Samsung, LG and Hyundai they recovered however, fast forward to the present day and (due to the bitter trade battle between the US and China) South Korea’s economy is again, grinding to a halt.
What’s this all about?
Why is all this information important when discussing a movie? Because changes in economic growth have direct consequences on social structures and Parasite is all about social heirarchy. It highlights the disparity between the top and bottom end of town and the affect it has on everything from morality to education.
Parasite is a metaphor for the class war that is raging in South Korea told with suspense and black humour. It’s the story of how a working class family manages to con their way into the lives of an upper class family.
The Kim family live in borderline poverty. They inhabit a crappy apartment below street level with bad ventilation, bad drainage and very little natural light. They steal the wifi from a nearby coffee shop and leave the windows open when the neighbourhood is being fumigated to deal with their own roach infestation. They scrape together an income by folding boxes for a pizza delivery company.
Their son Ki-Woo gets recommended by a friend to work as an English tutor for the daughter of the extremely wealthy Park family. He changes his name to Kevin, forges a university degree and lands the job. In doing so he works out that the mother Yeon-kyo is the perfect mark, convincing her that her son, Da Song, needs an art tutor to harness his genius. From here the plan is afoot to have his entire family develop cover stories and come on board to work for the Parks, who have no idea any of them are related.
What the Kims are doing may be only ostensibly wrong because the Parks are questionable characters too. Who is the Parasite here? The people serving the wealthy under the pretence of a lie to improve themselves? Or is it the wealthy who lean on the servants to fill the needs of their family that they are either too lazy, selfish or oblivious to nurture?
The Parks are played by Cho Yeo Jong as mum Yeon-kyo, Lee Sun Gyung as dad Don-ik, Jeon Ji So as daughter Da-hye and Jeong Hyun-joon as youngest child Da song. They’re joined by their housekeeper Moon gwang played by Lee Jeong-eun.
The Kims have one of Bong Joon Ho’s go to guys, Kang Ho-Song as dad Ki-taek, Chang Hye-jin as mum Choong-Sook, Choi Woo-shik as son Ki-woo and Park So-dam who puts in a standout performance as daughter Ki-jung.
The camera work and locations are excellent. Little tricks like showing the Kims as a close family by cramming them into shot, and in contrast putting lots of space between the Parks to highlight their distance are very effective. The whole film is about contrasts. The Kims home is dense and rough whereas the Park’s smooth and spacious. The Park’s home takes centre stage, almost like a host for the parasites to occupy. Stairs are used as a metaphor for the separation between classes and their worlds. Downstairs to the poor end of town and up to the money.
All of this is augmented by an outstanding soundtrack from Jung Jae Il.
This is a morally ambiguous film that audiences will find quite extraordinary. There’s delight to be had in seeing the wealthy and naïve be taken for a ride at the hands of the underdog family,
Something unsettling is happening in between the laughter, suspense and thrills that leaves audiences walking away with a lot to think about. If you were given the opportunity how far would you go to make life better for your family?
Parasite fills the mind with worms that keep turning long after the credits roll.