Film still from Bong Joon-ho's award-winning movie Parasite.

Laugh-out-loud funny and shocking, tense and tragic, sad and satisfying, all at once. That is how I would describe Bong Joon-ho’s Palm d’Or prize-winning  film Parasite. Beautifully cinematic, with outstanding performances from the entire cast, this film explores the sharp divide between the haves and have nots in our modern societies through the lens of a family of grifters. The story starts as the family hit hard times – their free wifi is cut-off and things are getting rough. Before too long, an opportunity presents itself, and the family find a new target. A wealthy family, the Parks, who live high on a hill in a beautiful house designed by a famous architect. And well, I can’t reveal any more without going into spoiler territory. Needless to say, what happens next is worth watching.

Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong, who worked with Bong Joon-ho on Snowpiercer and Mother, and was the man behind the lens in the stunning film Burning, creates interesting tableaus.  The world in the basement is starkly contrasted with the world high on the hill, one tableau created by a street-level window, framing a dirty back-street where drunks regularly come to relieve themselves. The other is an enormous glass window that looks out onto a well manicured, lush garden. The family crowded together in their basement apartment, crawling into odd, tiny spaces to get wifi reception, while in the architect-designed home of the wealthy family there is too much empty space, people are always separated, and awkwardly clomp along the expanse of polished wood. 

There’s so much more to say about this film, which has a clear message about rich and poor in modern, developed societies, which has been a theme in many recent films, including the recent Korean stand-out Burning, but also Jordan Peele’s Us, amongst a couple of others, but more on that in the next section when we get into spoiler-territory.

Going Deeper with spoilers…

Watching Parasite, as the film developed, I started to see some striking parallels to the themes in the film Us. Don’t get me wrong, this is a completely different film, in style, in story, in genre. But there are common threads nonetheless. Us is like a highly stylised, horror version of Parasite in many ways. The two families in juxtaposition, one living below ground, doing what they need to do to survive, the other high above with more than anyone could ever want and ignorant of their privilege, and their thoughtless and sometimes humiliating treatment of others.

As we start the film, we begin with the family, who we soon learn are chancers and grifters, trying to get what they can. They don’t plan to make it rich, just to get by another day. Down in their crowded, awkward, basement apartment, they search for ways to make money so they can pay the next bill. One day, Ki-woo the son of the family, is offered an opportunity by a friend, and so the con begins. But, even though it appears so in the way it’s presented, this is not really a con. The family of grifters are all working, extremely hard in fact. They are doing the jobs they have been hired to do and doing then well. The con is that they are not necessarily as qualified as they claim, perhaps not ‘entitled’ according to the rules. But actually they’re not taking more than wages from the family they are supposedly getting the better of, albeit through jobs they have dishonestly gained, (and also at the considerable expense of the original driver and housekeeper).

Even when the Park family go away camping, our family of grifters decide to live it up, but never with the intention of having more than a comfortable weekend away from their basement. But things go wrong. Very wrong, and very fast. Our family ends up having to scuttle away, running down and down and down a series of long steep stairs as they descend back into hell. Although this hell is not so much on fire as under water, with their whole lives, as uncomfortable as they were, now submerged, and not just in water, but in overflowing sewerage.

Then comes the final twist, through the film we’ve been considering the family of grifters to be the ones in control. They are the ones who  know what’s really going on and have the plan, and they are executing it without a hitch, the Park family entirely at their mercy. But at the very end, we, and they, realise the mistake. It is the family from below who have been conned. The Park family were the ones who had the power all along. They are the ones who can hire and fire, demand and humiliate at will, and it is our family who are at the mercy of the Parks with their wealth, privilege and power. And suddenly, having assumed you knew the answer to this the whole time, you suddenly begin to re-think, who is the Parasite that the film is named after?

Parasite is such a great film on so many levels (literally and figuratively in fact), and is on in select cinemas from next week.