Parasite – Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or Winning Return as the King of Korean Cinema

Ben O’Dwyer

Article Note: Minor Spoilers

After a 10 year stint in the “Hollywood System”, as he described it, with the English language features Snowpiercer and Okja, Bong Joon-ho returns to his Korean roots with his Palme D’or and Sydney Film Festival winning social satire Parasite. Perhaps one of the more deserving Palme D’or winners that have come out of the Cannes Film Festival in recent years, Parasite deserves the critically high praise it is currently receiving prior to its official June 27thAustralian release. It also marks Korea’s first Palme D’or win, achieved on the 100 year anniversary of the country’s cinema. The effort to force the Korean cinema into the mainstream has been heavily aided in recent years with films like Bong’s Parasite, Lee Chang-dong’s brilliant Burning, a Palme D’or contender from last year, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Parasite arguably stands at the top of this list of films, with Bong delivering his most mature work yet.

Without delving into heavy spoilers (which Director Bong advised us against during his Q&A), the film revolves around the low-class Kim family’s involvement with the wealthy Park family, and a string of incidents that occur as a result. The film begins with the Kim family folding pizza boxes (the family’s primary source of income), eating dinners from local convenience stores, and searching every inch of their basement-home for a Wi-Fi signal. Though from the start it is clear that this family isn’t your average low-class family, as is the case in all of Bong’s films. The Director mentioned in the Q&A that the dialogue that the Kim family use with each other is extremely strange; they swear and use phrases that wouldn’t normally be seen in a typical Korean family, something that easily goes over the heads of non-Korean speaking viewers. As such, their cunning as con-artists soon becomes apparent as they one-by-one infiltrate the Park family’s circle, replacing their tutors, their maid, and their personal driver under different aliases. As the centre of the film, the Park family home is almost a character in itself with its elaborate set design, setting up many tense and comedic situations throughout the film.

Contrasting these two families in this expansive home, Bong explores the metaphorical and physical ‘horrors’ of class division. He reunites with the internationally famous and ever-charming Song Kang-ho (who led his earlier films Memories of Murder and The Host) who plays Kim Ki-taek, the patriarch of the Kim family. It also features performances by Lee Sun-keen as Park Dong-ik, the patriarch of the Park family, among other names such as Cho Yeong-jeong, as Park Yeon-kyo, and Choi Woo-shik, as Kim Ki-woo. As with most of Bong’s ensemble films, there wasn’t a weak performance to be found, with even the minor characters such as the son and daughter from the Park family playing their roles fantastically. Much can be said about Song Kang-ho; charming in every role he plays, able to convey and evoke a range of emotions and audience responses through simple line deliveries and facial movements, and a reason for watching any film he appears in. Though similar to roles he’s played before, in that he plays the ‘everyman’ (Memories of Murder’s Park Doo-man for example) similar to Jimmy Stewart in classic Hollywood, he visually and characteristically appears much more mature in the role of Kim Ki-taek. Speaking more on the performances themselves, in the Director’s Q&A after the film Bong mentioned that though many of the characters commit horrendous and ‘bad’ actions, none of them are wholly bad, as in the words of the director “those people just don’t exist”. He went on to mention that they exist in a “grey area” between good and bad, and naturally float between the two throughout the duration of the film. This tittering between zones results in a natural and un-forced tonal shift towards the end of the film that expertly blends with the rest of the content within the film, despite being an extreme and shocking turn.

As with all of his films, Bong Joon-ho blends genres (which will be discussed later) to showcase a primary theme or issue. He mentioned during the Q&A that he likes to make films about “weaker” groups of people, meaning people who don’t possess the voice of the majority. This is explicitly evident in Okja, with its focus on animal rights, environmentalism and capitalism, and in Snowpiercer with its class struggle plot. However, more subtle themes are pushed across in his earlier films, including Memories of Murder’s and The Host’s struggle with post-war national identity. Parasite sets its sights on class struggle, similar to Snowpiercer¸ though it doesn’t explicitly ponder this primary theme within the elements of the film. It produces a coherent reading. The openly ‘metaphorical’ nature of many things in the film (the rock primarily) are nonchalantly thrown at the audience within seconds of their appearance. Thematically Parasite exists closely to his first English-language film Snowpiercer in that they both focus on class struggle, though this appears more comically in Snowpiercer’s science fiction setting and more maturely in Parasite’s realistic family drama. Another similarity is in the physical structure of the films, primarily in terms of set design and cinematography. Snowpiercer focuses on the lower-class denizens of the tail section of the train moving towards the high-class front section of the train, a horizontally positioned hierarchy. Parasite, on the other hand, focuses on verticals. The Kim family live in a low set basement-like home while the Park family live in a luxurious and architecturally elevated hilltop mansion. Even when the families interact with each other the Kim family always exists on a lower plane to the Park family (Examples being when they are positioned under the table and in the basement).

Bong Joon-ho has always been an ‘unconventional’ filmmaker, with his films not entirely fitting into any specific genre. Take The Host, which on the surface appears as a monster film, but breaks many cinematic conventions related to the genre; the monster appears within the first few scenes and is clearly visible throughout the film. More than this, it touches heavily on themes of South Korean national identity and the dominance of the United States in the South post the Korean War. All of his previous and subsequent films also focus on ‘greater’ themes, with Parasite being no different. Bong’s injection of subtle and often black comedy into these violent scenarios (Barking Dogs Never Bite’s dog hanging scene and Memories of Murder’s infamous drop-kicking come to mind) adds to his films’ unclassifiable nature. There is a delicate balance between violent, heavy elements and comedic components that work in cementing Bong Joon-ho film’s as undeniably Bong Joon-ho, rather than conforming to a specific set of genre conventions. If we were to classify Parasite it would come under such genre umbrellas as comedy, family drama, thriller, and even tragedy, but it remains a wholly original affair. Parasite in this sense is perhaps his most mature work, in that it allows audiences to throw away the aforementioned genres and settle for the label of ‘A Bong Joon-ho’ film. A prime example of this appears at around the mid-point of Parasite (which won’t be spoiled) and involves a morally horrific event taking place under very comedic circumstances. The result had the entire State Theatre in an uproar of laughter.

A highpoint of the Q&A was towards the end when the director revealed he was working on three more films, two Korean and one English. One of the three is a set to be a Korean horror movie set in Seoul, which was the extent of information he could reveal. With Parasite’s triumphant success at Cannes, the Sydney Film Festival and throughout its South Korean cinema run, Bong retakes his crown as the king of Korean cinema.

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