Parasite is not your average foreign film. I mean, yes, it’s got subtitles and it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but you wouldn’t call it ‘arty’.
This movie is a hit, the highest-grossing Palme d’Or winner ever in both France and America, and one of the biggest-ever movies in Korea, where it’s not a foreign language movie at all. Plus it got loads more awards nominations, in loads more categories, than foreign films usually get – an original screenplay win at the BAFTAs, for example. What with ROMA’s success last year, maybe we’re getting used to foreign language movies at last. You do realise, that in most countries, we are the foreign language movie?
Anyway, back to Parasite, which isn’t in black and white, either, if that’s the sort of thing that puts you off (which I’m sure it doesn’t, or you wouldn’t be on this site). It’s got a sumptuous, crisply designed colour scheme and it is, in many ways, a perfect little diamond of a film.
It’s from South Korea, which is rapidly becoming one of the world’s major film-making nations with a mix of hugely popular creature features, martial arts thrillers, period epics and sci-fi spectaculars. They’re also good at mashing that all up and creating unusual yet accessible urban mysteries. I guess if your next door neighbour is the world’s most mysterious country, run by a series of nuke-threatening despots, there’s going to be a certain edginess to your existence.
And that’s what Parasite feeds on. Directed by Bong Joon Ho (the surnames come first), it’s the story of the Kim family (Dad, Mum, and a late-teenage brother and sister, Ki-woo and Ki-jeong) who live in a basement in a poor part of the city, trying to scam extra cash anyway they can – folding pizza boxes, jumping on wifi networks, forging documents.
The son, Ki-woo, offers to take over a student mate’s tutoring gig and arrives at a sleek, architect-designed mansion in the smart part of town (it could be Gangnam, as in the famously irritating pop hit, Gangnam Style). Ki-woo is instantly popular with the girl he’s teaching and soon recommends an art therapist when he notices the rich Park family’s introverted and problematic young son.
Pretty soon, Ki-jeong, sporting her forged art degree qualifications, is also in the mansion, tutoring – of course brother and sister don’t let on they’re related. And when the Parks have to mysteriously fire their chauffeur, well, Ki-jeong knows the perfect replacement…
Like an Agatha Christie novel, the jigsaw falls into neatly into place but then, with a shimmy, Parasite heads off in jagged directions. There’s such elegance to it all yet its surprises and shocks continue, adding layers and new tones, growing before our eyes. Like the house it’s set in, it’s a beautifully designed film. You coo at its gear shifts and twists like you play with the satisfying action of expensive kitchen drawers. Watch out for the sharp knives.
And of course, it carries a potent social message about the divides between rich and poor, about class, work and survival. There might be a certain chill in its heart, but the characters make you warm to it – it’s like Ken Loach told with the craft of Spielberg, the oomph of Scorsese and the dark, mischievous wit of Bunuel and David Lynch.
Parasite has sucked up all these influences and become something familiar yet unique, a sleek mutation that suggests cinema itself will keep spawning stories to captivate every generation. I hear a spin-off TV series is now in the works at HBO. The thing’s alive, I tell you, alive.