February 9th, Parasite made history as the first foreign-language film ever to win a best picture Oscar. Bong Joon-ho also took home the awards for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay as well as Best Foreign Language Film. The film is the first South Korean movie to be nominated and to win Academy Awards.
It is no wonder that this wonderfully crafted thriller took home the big statue last night. Since its premiere (and Palme D’Or) at the Cannes Film Festival, Parasite has been winning at every major awards show. A tale about one poor family bluffing its way into a rich Seoul home, Parasite is about poverty, greed, materialism and social climbing, foregrounding issues that are recurrent in many other Bong Joon-ho’s films (The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer).
The ‘parasites’ in the movie are the Kims, a poor, unemployed family living together in a basement flat where they hold their smartphones to the ceiling, trying to get wi-fi coverage, and leave their windows open during the bug-killing street fumigation. When son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is suddenly presented with a chance to tutor a rich high-school girl in English, he convinces his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) to forge a college certificate.
Ki-woo meets the girl’s mother Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) in her grand house, built high above the slums of Seoul, and easily gets the job. Yeon-kyo lives with her businessman husband Mr Park, her flirtatious daughter and young son. Ki-woo is fascinated with the lifestyle of the rich family, and quickly decides to try to get her family hired by the Parks. He introduces his sister as an art teacher and therapist for the Park’s hyperactive son, and his father as a licensed driver (after Ki-jung makes sure the Park’s driver loses his job). When they convince Yeon-kyo to fire also the devoted housekeeper, the last member of the Kims is hired. The whole family start planning a future of privilege, while pretending to be strangers to each other in front of the Parks. But then the Park’s young boy notices all the members of the Kim family smell alike – they smell like poor people, according to Mr Park – and, one after the other, things start unravelling in the worst way possible.
Parasite follows a Korean tradition of movies such as Kim Ki-young’s classic The Housemaid (remade in 2010) and Park Chan-wook’s drama, The Handmaiden. Just like in these films, class divide is central in Bong Joon-ho’s thriller, and it is conveyed through elements such as space, rain, lighting and stairs. Mr Park and his wife are often depicted while ascending the stairs of their elegant home, while the Kims are seen running down the city steps towards their house at the bottom of the Seoul slums. Similarly, the Parks mansion is beautifully lit, warmed by the sunshine through its large windows, while sunlight only comes in through a small window in the Kims’ basement. Finally, Bong Joon-ho insists on the different perspectives the characters have according to where they live: in the basement, for instance, the Kims have a limited view of street garbage, car wheels and drunk men urinating in the corners.
This is a movie with neither heroes nor villains and that is what makes it so shocking and appealing. The Kims can be wicked liars, but they are smart and resourceful. The Parks, on the other hand, seem kind and generous, but they can also be mean and blinded by their own privilege, such as when they talk about the smell of “people who ride the subway”. Both families are ruthless and miserable and, when the Kims understand that, they try everything to take what the Parks have. But there is a sense of doom and inescapability: no matter how high the poor get, in the end the cycle of poverty, struggle and injustice always repeats itself.