While watching Tom and Jerry (or Beavis and Butthead, or Ren and Stimpy), I sometimes wondered if the animated mayhem turned truly physical, if the anvils dropped from upper floors landed with the effect those anvils would have on the unfortunates below in reality, what would be the shift in tone in the cartoon?  What if the tone had been originally slapstick, but then turned real?  How would I as the viewer react to the change?  How would I receive and process this shift, this altered tone?

In Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-hoo, I have at least a partial answer.  The film examines two, and then three families. The first and principal focus is on the quartet of father, Kim Ki-taek, mother, Chung-sook, son, Ki-woo and daughter, Ki-jeong.  They live in a dank basement apartment, searching for a free wireless signal in the apartment, cursing the neighbor who adopted a password and crowing when a signal from a coffee shop is located by Ki-jeong while crouched next to the toilet.  They fold, badly, cardboard boxes for a local pizzeria to support themselves, but receive a windfall when a school chum of Ki-woo offers him a reference as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy couple.  With a forged diploma, Ki-woo secures his position, and the rest of his family soon secures employment at this same household. His sister, Ki-jeong, spouting art therapy language learned through Google, lands the position of art therapist for the couple’s son, while father, Kim, becomes the family chauffer and mother, Chung-sook, the maid. Each displaces the prior occupant of that position through stealthy dirty tricks and expert lying.  All four conceal their family relationship (not to mention their fraudulent credentials) from the wealthy Parks, who seems blissfully unaware (“they are not nice despite being rich, they are nice because they are rich”) that something seems not quite square about their new assistants.

The third family is that of recently discharged maid, Moon-gwang, who returns to the home while the Parks are away to reveal that her husband Geun-sae, has been living in a secret bunker, unknown to the Parks, under the Parks’ palatial home.  The bunker was constructed years before, to allow the owner “to hide from the North Koreans, or his creditors,” and Geun-sae has hidden there, fleeing loan sharks seeking funds due from his failed bakery.  Father Kim Ki-taek has his own failed bakery in his past, and his own reasons for concealment, and each character knows his or her own relative comfort and security rests unfirmly on a series of lies, and the desperate evasions made to conceal those lies.

The slapstick begins as the violent but at first harmless struggles of the two families to wrest control from and force the eviction of the other from the Parks’ home before the parks return from a picnic.  The families race up and down from the home into the bunker, seizing household items as makeshift weapons in the increasingly brutal struggle to remain.

To this point the film has whizzed by, surfing on a froth of sharp dialogue in a comedy of manners.  The remainder of the film likewise whizzes by, but while clever dialogue continues, the circumstances and fate of both families, and then later the Parks, becomes gradually grimmer and darker.  There was no one moment when I was certain that the comedy had shifted to horror, or that the slapstick would not return, but the last of the film works like a film by Luis Buñuel, from a script by Goya.

The film is expertly done, with actions echoing earlier events without drawing attention to the parallels, and characters stripped second by second to their hard interior core.  No one is good, no one is blameless, including the less than affable Parks, and darkness descends into the most innocent and banal family gatherings.  At the end the fate of each character is fixed and inescapable, all lies and illusions are dissipated, and something like, but just like, a cruel justice comes to each family.

In describing the film, I would be remiss if I did not note the themes of class, both the thoughtlessness and self-assured barbarity of the wealthy and the self-abasing cunning of the poor, throughout the film.  Each facet of this interrelationship is carefully and coldly examined, with no quarter given to any party.  Indeed, the primary theme of Parasite is the cold dance of class acted out on the bodies and souls of the trapped participants.

As a fervent admirer of Bong Joon-hoo’s Snowpiercer, I found this work clearer in purpose and more focused in its course than the earlier film, which did tend to linger too long on doomy exposition by Ed Harris and Tilda Swinton.  This is a nasty piece of work, in all the best meanings of that phrase, and a near-flawless film by one of the world’s strongest working directors.  I was left wanting more, and looking forward to the next film, which I hope will demonstrate the ever-deepening artistry of Bong Joon-hoo.


Review: Courtesy of George de Verges.

Image:  Director, Bong June Ho and actor, Song Kang Ho on the set of Parasite; US distributor, Boon.