Parasite by Korean director Bong Joon Ho, which has done so well at the Oscars, is at its heart about class war and family. Andy Stowe will try to persuade you to go and see it – while attempting not to give you too much information about the plot of this astonishing film. It starts as a sort of bleak comedy of poverty and deception and ends with almost complete despair.
The Kims live in a bug infested semi-basement flat which gives their clothes a distinctive damp smell and the humiliating odour of poverty is a motif of the film. When we meet them, they’ve all had their mobiles cut off by their networks and the neighbour whose wi-fi they’d been using has just started protecting it with a password. Luckily, a new café has opened nearby and they can get a signal if they sit by the toilet window.
Meals tend to be disrupted by the sight of drunks pissing outside their window and their poverty is so deep that a day’s work folding pizza boxes is a godsend. This is not the image of the high-tech, super dynamic Korean society most foreigners probably have. This, like most other places, is a country with a large insecure workforce barely scraping by. The only things they have going for them is that they are all shrewd, adaptable and utterly devoted to each other.
The son, Ki-woo, wangles a job as a tutor for the daughter of a company boss who lives in a house which is a multi-million-pound architectural masterpiece. The view from its windows is the beautiful garden; all the rooms are exquisitely designed; the Park family has the services of a live-in housekeeper, a driver and private tutors; each of the three horrible yappy dogs has a personalised diet. We learn that the very wealthy in South Korea have secret bunkers built under their houses in case the North Koreans attack.
While the film is still in comic mode, the son gets his sister a job with the family, she gets the driver job for her father and he gets the housekeeper job for his wife. They are the parasites occupying the host with mild regret for the people sacked as a result. The Kims don’t dislike their new employers, but they understand that money gives you the luxury to put on a bit of a façade with the mother memorably commenting “She’s nice because she’s rich. Hell, if I had all this money. I’d be nice, too!”
Mr Park, the company boss, can live with his servants just so long as they don’t overstep his invisible line, but he’s always aware of the fact that they are different. They have that smell of the people who use public transport.
And it’s here where the comedy stops. The Kims return home one night to find that their neighbourhood has been flooded and their own flat is filled with rainwater and sewage. The Parks, unaware of their connection with each other, invite them to a child’s birthday party the next day which is filled with their employer’s glamourous friends. Bong Joon Ho gives new meaning to the idea of the underclass and offers a penultimate scene in which all the barely suppressed conflicts of violently unequal societies are expressed. You will walk out of the cinema slightly stunned and in no doubt about who the parasites of the title really are.