In the 92 years of the Academy Awards, there have been all kinds of films that garnered nomination, especially for Best Picture. As part of this project, I’ve reviewed many different genres from historical thrillers to epics, to fantasies, to war movies, and even mysteries. There has been murder, love, fights for civil rights and acceptance, musicals, upper-class snobbery, and lower-class struggles. We’ve even examined communism. These are just the various films that I can think of off the top of my head, but I think you get the point.
But, of all the 92 films that have won Best Picture, 91 of them have had one thing in common: the English language. Sure, they may take place in far off lands with all different kinds of people, but all of them have been in English. Some had no voices at all but were still geared toward an audience that could understand the language.
The film follows the intertwined story of two families in South Korea, the Kim family, and the Park family, as each one navigates their separate yet interconnected lives. This year was the first time I’d heard of Bong Joon-Ho, but I guarantee you, I will not forget him. For as long as I live, even. Parasite is the rare film that transcends genres, mixing them together in a giant mixer and creating a beautiful and juicy creation upon which we feast. At its core, Parasite is a commentary on an amazing wealth gap that reaches far beyond Korea. It’s a monster movie, political commentary, thriller, and a darkly fantastical film that attacks the iniquities and absurdities of capitalism. To say I had to stay up at night to think about it is an understatement.
Now, for the rest of the movie.
Parasite opens with a shot of the Kim family, living in their Seoul apartment that is half sunk into the ground. The Kims are down on their luck, trying to make ends meet in whatever way they can. One day, Ki Woo, the son played by Woo-sik Choi, gets a visit from a wealthier friend of his who is at university. The friend informs Ki Woo that he’s heading out abroad and that he believes that Ki Woo is an excellent choice to replace him as an English tutor for the eldest daughter of the wealthy Park family. Ki Woo only accepts after his friend tells him that while the Parks are rich, they’re not too bright and will fall for his scheme.
On Ki Woo’s first day, he meets the Park family: mother Yeo-jeong Jo (Yeon Kyo), father Dong Ik (Sun-kyun Lee), son Da Song (Hyun-jun Jung), and their daughter, his pupil Da Hye (Ji-so Jung). Ki Woo is a natural tutor and the Park family, particularly Yeo-jeong Jo is taken with him. Slowly, Ki Woo cons the Parks into hiring the rest of his family, first of which is his sister Ki Jung (So-dam Park), then his father, Ki Taek (Kang-ho Song) and finally his mother, Chung Sook (Hye-jin Jang). The four Kims perform various duties for the Park family from tutoring, nurturing, housekeeping, and driving. Until a single ring of the doorbell changes everything.
The plot in Parasite zips along, moving seamlessly through the story of these two families. As the Kim’s house of cards begins to collapse, the movie moves from a film about con artists sponging off the rich to a very dark film involving murder and deceit. About halfway through its 132-minute run time, the film turns so hard to the left, and then your eyes won’t leave the screen for the rest of the movie until Bong Joon-ho has shown you everything he wants you to see. There is a lot of plot here, but it’s trimmed down to only the very best meat; Parasite has no fat.
This is reflected in the writing, too. The script, which won Best Original Screenplay, was written by Bong. Though the film is not a literal haiku, it is a figurative one, using only the words necessary to get the point across. No more, no less. The screenplay is a master class in brevity, one that other writers (like myself) should pay attention to.
On another front, the script drips with metaphor. But this doesn’t become clear right away until the credits roll and you’re stuck on your couch, trying to find meaning with your liver processes the beer you had with dinner. 1. 1.
Jaeil Jung composed the score for Parasite, yet the score was not nominated.
Just as the entire film can’t fit neatly into a single genre, neither can the score. In the last review, I wrote that Out of Africa gave me a sense of adventure through John Barry’s excellent scoring. Parasite prefers to go a different direction than that, blending it all together.
Leading the way are the light yet fast-paced violins and strings which accelerate the action, but also seem to bring order to the chaos. Next are the deep emotional elements for the film’s depths and teaching moments. And finally is the irony. Jung’s score lulls us into a false sense of happiness while the Kims celebrate their success at the detriment to the Park family. All the while, we know that the Kims are leeching off their generosity. The score seems to compliment the plot in a way that we don’t normally see in a film. It’s hard to describe, really, since we don’t see it often. Even in big, grandiose films, the score seems to help guide us to what we should be feeling. In Parasite, the music lets us pick for ourselves, and I love that. 1.
Parasite’s set decoration was charged to Won-Woo Cho, but writer-director Bong Joon Ho had his hands all over the set design from the get-go. The movie triumphs in building a visual atmosphere. Just as the writing brings us into the world, the place shown is equally inviting. The two primary locations in the film are the Kim family apartment and the Park family home.
When I decided what order to put these review categories in, I knew the format was key. I chose to start with the physical and more objective parts of the movie and then narrow it down to the abstract and subjective. All movies have a meaning of some sort, and I reasoned that it was best to get the exposition out of the way before I talked about my interpretation of a film. In Parasite, this section is where the physical is also abstract, the set screams meanings at us from the start. The set here is much more than an artistic choice than just aesthetics.
The Kim family is one that is stuck near the bottom rung of class and wealthy. Their half-basement apartment shows them at the edge of poverty and ruin, but tantalizingly close to the spoils of middle-class existence. The apartment is cluttered with memorabilia and other personal touches that make it a home. A messy and dank one at the end of a street, but a home where the Kims are a unit and a cohesive family.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Park family home. Built specifically for the movie, the home in the story was supposed to be designed by an architect as his own personal abode. The home is a marvel of modernist home design with brutal concrete walls, rich woods on the interior, and unusual windows. The shots in this home are abstract with the subject popping off the screen, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The Park home is large and barren, with most walls or rooms lacking any personal touches. The house helps the Park family, and the audience to feel isolated from one another while in their home.
But the most important set pieces are what we see between the two main worlds, the interstitial space between wealth and ruin. In a word: stairs. The stairs tell us that the film is not about movement on a horizontal screen, but movement in metaphorical vertical space. And that is the crux of the whole thing. 1.
Kyung-pyo Hong was the director of photography for Parasite.
The most unusual aspect of Parasite’s cinematography was the lack of establishing shots throughout the film. The camera focuses on people and viewpoints almost exclusively. But that doesn’t mean the shot selection is boring, either. Parasite is a movie that also flexes its muscle when it comes to style. As I said before, the shots in the Park home are very abstract, even minimalist, taking on the very same things that I love about black and white movies. In fact, a black and white version of Parasite was released earlier this year. The only establishing shots, really, are those shots of the stairs. 1.
It’s interesting that throughout the entire film, I took exactly one note about the acting. This was a film about many different characters that there is really no lead actor or actress, just a handful of really great performances.
But two performances stick out in my mind. First of all is the part of Ki Woo, played by Woo-sik Choi. Ki Woo, after becoming the tutor for Da Hye, falls in love with his pupil even though he’s is the key factor in turning the lives of the Park family upside down. He drives the plot along, too. It is Ki Woo, who when things start to spiral out of control in the Park home takes the solution to the extreme and helps to unleash chaos in the last 20 minutes of the movie. Underneath the surface is a young man who thrives on idealism and is practical in most situations.
The other performance of note is the role of Yeon Kyo, played by Yeo-jeong Jo. As the wealthy Park family matriarch, and housewife, Yeon Kyo must manage a household and raise two children, but she still has no idea how to be that mother, preferring to pass the job off to someone else and pay them for their troubles. She’s the image of the ultra-wealthy suburban housewife who you’d love to punch in the face. Life is there to serve her, not the other way around. She calls on members of her service staff at all hours of the day; she wants what she wants when she wants it. In Parasite, it is the wife who first epitomizes the rich’s use of poor labor rather than the husband. 1.
Not only was Bong Joon Ho the first director to have a film in a language other than English win Best Picture, he’s also the first Korean to win Best Director. This was an honor that was deserved in the most obvious of ways. Never before have I seen a film that had such heavy-handed direction, but that was also as good as this one was. Kudos to Bong Joon Ho for his momentous achievement.
When I was thinking about this movie, I really tried to think of all the things that Parasite is, and truth be told, it’s a lot. I can’t stress how many layers this film has, and I really recommend that you watch it for yourself and form your own opinion.
Parasite is indeed a movie about class, wealth (and the lack of it), and is an examination and repudiation of capitalism. It drives home the yawning wealth gap between the haves and the have nots that is occurring today. At the beginning of the film, the Kim family is folding pizza boxes for a pizza delivery company for extra cash. They lose their job because a neighboring family accepts the job for a lower wage. Thus, the Kim family is one that has to mooch, scam, and steal to survive. They steal the neighbor’s Wi-Fi until that neighbor adds a password to their network. Again, the Kim’s half-basement apartment has them teetering on the edge of financial ruin, just mere steps away from descending downward into destitution and poverty.
Then we have the Park family, who the Kim’s must literally climb stairs to reach their house at the top of a hill. We see the Kim’s climbing stairs time and time again in the movie. The Kim’s must go back down the stairs to their home, to their rung of society where they find themselves. Again, this film is all about vertical movement. If you find yourself descending the stairs, there is nowhere to go but down, only up if you were lucky enough to be climbing them in the first place. The rich are getting richer, leaving the people at the bottom to fight over what’s left. In short, the idea that you can pick yourself up by your bootstraps is violently rejected in Parasite.
Bong himself has described the movie as a commentary on the idea of “late-stage capitalism.” In a 2017 article from The Atlantic, the term “is a catchall phrase for the indignities and absurdities of our contemporary economy, with its yawning inequality and superpowered corporations and shrinking middle class.” The term comes from Marxist thinkers, but not from Karl Marx himself as a way to interpret the industrial world they saw around them. In general, the term has morphed into the idea that all the banal excesses in today’s world, such as expensive jeans with tears already in them or gold-plated toilets, don’t jibe in the same kind of world as one with chronic wage stagnation and widespread poverty.
Ki Woo pledges to his family that he will go to school and come home with a degree so he will make a lot of money and buy his family a home like the Park’s own. However, it would take more than 500 years of earning for Ki Woo to even afford that home.
This idea is central to Parasite. The Park family sees the Kim family as nothing more than labor, something they pay to enrich their own lives. At the end of the day, the Park’s don’t really care about the Kim’s so long as they provide a quality service for their paycheck. To the Kim’s, the Park’s are everything. The film shows us that the rich will squeeze every bit of labor out of the poor and wring them dry. There is always further for the 1% to climb, after all.
You might think that the idea of late-stage capitalism sounds like a socialist idea, and you might have an argument there. But there is room for debate here. Are the Kim’s a victim of circumstance and bad luck, or are they at the wrong end of a system, albeit an implicit one, to keep them down and exploited? I think the latter, but again, there is room for debate. Bong’s job is to tell you about the struggle of the poor and working-class in a capitalist society.
It struck me as interesting to see how far the Academy has changed from other eras that I’ve written about here, most notably the 1950s. A movie like Parasite would have never seen the light of day during the second Red Scare, the McCarthy witch hunts, or the eras of blacklists. Films like All About Eve and The Greatest Show on Earth taught us about Hollywood’s thoughts on communism, and anti-capitalist ideas were squashed. But when considering the ideas put forth in this movie, it made me think that this is also a critique of mainstream Hollywood today. Sure, you may not watch the Academy Awards because they may perceive all the stars as being self-obsessed Hollywood elites, and in some cases, you might be right. Hollywood today, and even in the past, has been a bastion of liberal thinking, which might contrast with the aims of the studios themselves. Mainstream movies exist for a single purpose: to make money.
So while many in Hollywood may pride themselves on speaking out about social issues and helping others, which can be good things, the top brass at major studios would never allow this movie to be made. It also brings into sharp focus the bias that lives in the Academy, and why the lack of diversity at the Oscars can be a frustrating and very hard problem to solve. So, it’s almost fitting that a film that criticizes capitalism and its ills had to come from beyond our shores to get recognition. Parasite is the epitome of everything that Hollywood wants to be but can’t because the leaders in the industry, and those in the Academy at times, are the rich that the film criticizes. But this also doesn’t mean that the film was Oscar-bait, either. Parasite deserves every single award it won, and possibly a few more. It’s certainly one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and I’ll bet you a year’s salary that it’s one of the best you’ve seen too. Once you start the film, it lives in your brain forever, overturning tables, smearing lipstick on the walls, and destroying all your grandmother’s fine china. That is a mark of a great film, and you can thank Bong Joon Ho for that. 1.
This was the rare film I considered given an 11. But, it would undermine all the other films that earned 10s on their own.
Final score: 10/10
Parasite won the 92nd Academy Award for Best Picture on February 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for Best Picture. Jane Fonda presented the award and it was accepted by producers Bong Joon-ho and Kwak Sin-ae. In total, Parasite was nominated for six Oscars, winning four of them.
Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor, Renee Zellweger won Best Actress, Brad Pitt won Best Supporting Actor, and Laura Dern won Best Supporting Actress. The ceremony, which was without a host for the second consecutive year, was the lowest-rated ceremony in history.
Next week, I’ll review Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. After that, it’s Ordinary People, Oliver!, Tom Jones, All the King’s Men, and Cimarron.