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#90 (tie): ‘Parasite’: The Reveal discusses all 100 of Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time
One of the Sight & Sound list's newest additions, Bong Joon-ho's deftly tells a satirical story of deception and class divisions.
On December 1st, 2022, Sight & Sound magazine published “The Greatest Films of All Time,” a poll that’s been updated every 10 years since Bicycle Thieves topped the list in 1952. It is the closest thing movies have to a canon, with each edition reflecting the evolving taste of critics and changes in the culture at large. It’s also a nice checklist of essential cinema. Over the course of many weeks, months, and (likely) years, we’re running through the ranked list in reverse order and digging into the films as deep as we can. We hope you will take this journey with us.
Dir. Bong Joon-ho
Ranking: #90 (tie)
Previous rankings: N/A.
Premise: The Kims are a family of four living in poverty in a dingy basement apartment in Seoul. The Parks are a family of four living in luxury in a modern home in the same city. Their worlds collide when Kims’ son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), fakes his way into a tutoring job for the Parks’ daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so) and casually recommends an art teacher named “Jessica” that might be good for their unruly son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). With Da-hye and Da-song’s mother Park Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) proving a gullible mark, the Kims manage to bring the other two members of the family on board, too, with “Mr. Kim” (Song Kang-ho) taking over as chauffeur to the elite executive Park Dong-il (Lee Sun-kyun) and his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) replacing the Parks’ longtime housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), who had served the home previous owner, too. The scam works beautifully until one rainy night when it falls apart in ways that no one could anticipate.
Scott: In the history of the Academy Awards, ten foreign-language films have been nominated for Best Picture: Grand Illusion, Z, The Emigrants, Cries and Whispers, Il Postino, Life is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Letters From Iwo Jima, Amour, Roma, and Parasite. Parasite is the first to win, and along with Moonlight, which debuted at #60 on the Sight & Sound list, I’d argue that it’s the strongest Best Picture winner of the current century. We can dig into Academy history here, but I think the obvious obstacle that Parasite managed to hurtle here, outside of Hollywood’s instinct to honor its own, is that foreign-language films (now Best International Feature) have had their own category since Shoeshine won in 1947, and so movies made outside the U.S. have mostly been tucked away accordingly. For Parasite to win the top prize, without the backing of a major studio, speaks to its status as a true critical and cultural phenomenon—and, more pointedly, a film of extraordinary resonance outside Korea.
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Bong Joon-ho’s satirical thriller represents a breakthrough that was long in the making, given his status as a leading figure (and perhaps the most commercially adept) in a wave of Korean filmmakers that included Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), Hong Sang-soo (Turning Gate), Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil), Lee Chang-dong (Burning), and many others. You could see a Spielbergian wizardry on display in Bong’s delightful 2006 monster movie The Host, but he had proved equally adept at neo-noir (2003’s Memories of Murder), drama (2009’s Mother), social commentary (2013’s Snowpiercer), and the hybridization of his 2017 Netflix whatsit Okja. Of his previous films, Parasite has the most in common with Snowpiercer, a conceptually loaded Ship of Fools scenario in which humanity speeds through an uninhabitable landscape on a train whose compartments are rigorously class-divided. Parasite takes place in a world more recognizably our own, which makes it feel less schematic than Snowpiercer in establishing class tension and giving the twists in this impeccably executed story a real metaphorical bite.
To paraphrase one of my favorite bits from Whit Stillman’s Barcelona, I’d like to start by talking about the stuff that’s above the subtext—what never gets talked about—and that’s the text. Because Parasite satisfies first and crucially as a diamond-cut piece of plotting, with each event segueing so elegantly into the next that it feels apropos that the film is tied up with The Earrings of Madame de…. It takes almost precisely 45 minutes for the Kims to take all four jobs in the Park household, with one hire suggesting the next through opportunity or sabotage. (The way “Jessica” offers herself as an “art therapist,” increasing both her hours and her salary, is so delightful. She admits later that she “googled art therapy and ad-libbed the rest.”) That leads us to the twisty middle section where Kim Chung-sook, the new housekeeper, brings the whole family into the house to live large while the Parks are out on a camping trip, and things go absolutely haywire.
The panic of the Parks coming home early because of the weather (eight minutes away! expecting Chung-sook to pull off a dish she’s never made!), combined with the revelation about the old housekeeper and the bunker below the house, not only ramps up the tension and humor, but keeps our minds (and the Kims’ minds) racing on two different tracks at once. Parasite is what I like to call a “gearshift movie,” when a film turns on a dime and careens thrillingly in another direction. Psycho is the classic example, but there’s also Something Wild, Sunset, Boogie Nights, In the Bedroom and plenty of other cases, too, when a single scene or sequence can reorient a film entirely. And so this film about a family of con artists deepens into a savage commentary about social class.
Which brings us to the stuff below the text: The subtext. What do you have to say about that, Keith? Any thoughts on why Parasite struck such a chord with American audiences? And how does this film fit into the Bong-ography?
Keith: Sometimes it feels like the subtext and the text are one and the same in Parasite. At the least, it’s a film that makes its subtext readily visible. You’re right to note that it’s less schematic than Snowpiercer, but my favorite sequence is more or less the equivalent of a backwards trip through the Snowpiercer train. As the rains fall, the Kims have to go down, down, down from the Park’s beautiful, walled-off home into the bowels of the city where they live. Everything flows off the Parks and down to those who live below them, ultimately settling where those on the fringes of sustainability live. (That the sewage water has joined rainwater in flooding their semi-basement apartment is the final insult.) Bong’s film has plenty of moments that comment on the relationships between classes—Dong-il getting turned on at the idea of his wife wearing the cheap underwear found in his car, for instance—but it also makes it easy to discern where every character falls within its class section based on the physical location of their homes. The Kims thought they were the lowest of the low, until they meet Moon-gwang’s husband Oh Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon), who’s spent years living deep beneath the Parks in a sub-basement/bomb shelter they don’t even know exists. At least the Kims’ apartment has a window, even if it often looks out on drunks relieving themselves in the alley outside.
One thing I admire about the film is the way it refuses to simplify its situation, starting with its title. Who’s the parasite here? The obvious answer is the Kims, who attach themselves to the Parks and live off their wealth. But it could just as easily apply to the Parks, whose elevated position is made possible only by exploiting the work of others. That’s not unique to the Parks, of course. It’s their whole class to whom the idea of wanting anything or doing humiliating work to scrape by is unthinkable. In fact, the film never makes the Parks into conscious villains. They’re patronizing and privileged but they’re not bad people. Just unthinking: they’re so used to living in a bubble and treating those they employ as vassals there to fulfill their wishes, it doesn’t occur to behave any other way.
Why did it strike a chord in America? I think I just answered that, right? Capitalism may take different forms in different countries, but it kind of looks the same all around the world. But, to expand on that, I think you also answered the question above. This is a piece of social commentary but it’s also a propulsive, exquisitely crafted, and often very funny suspense film.
As for where it fits into the Bong filmography, I’m not sure! He’s tough to pin down, isn’t he? But I do think it shares a fondness for bringing dark humor to even the darkest situations. Memories of Murder’s bumbling cops dealing with the grimmest of crimes come immediately to mind, but I’m also thinking about how a film like Snowpiercer could also contain one of the most harrowing lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard in a movie and Tilda Swinton’s performance. It also shares a fondness for surrounding hard-to-miss bits of social commentary with well-realized characters. Like Okja, Parasite is not subtle in what it’s taking on, but the film is never simplistic.
Let me throw that question back to you, since I’m not sure I’ve exhausted the answer. And I’ve shared some thoughts about the Parks. I’d love to hear your take on the Kims. Here’s one question: have they always been rogues or are we seeing them become rogues for the first time in this film?
Scott: I’ve wondered about that question myself, because when we first encounter the Kims, they’re making money by folding boxes for Pizza Generation, which is humiliatingly on-the-level for a family of supposed con artists. And I think there’s something spontaneous about Ki-woo (or “Kevin”) recognizing that the Parks need an art teacher for their rambunctious son and thinking that his sister could fake her way into that part like he did with their daughter. (I love how “Jessica” spins the abstraction of the boy’s artwork in her interview: “The lower-right region of a painting is called the schizophrenia zone.”) Yet other parts of the scheme seem too sophisticated for amateurs to imagine: The scripting and rehearsal of imagined conversations, the exploitation of the housekeeper’s peach allergy, etc. I’d lean toward the Kims having pulled off cons before, though perhaps not on this scale.
But how big of a con can we really consider this, anyway? The only victims here are the chauffeur and housekeeper—the first shots at another level of class war to come—but all four of the Kims seem quite capable at doing these jobs and perfectly content to do them well into the future. When Chung-sook is asked to prepare a dish called “ram-don” in the panicked eight minutes before the Parks return from their camping trip, she pulls it off, despite never having heard of ram-don and having to deal with the chaos of the other Kims cleaning up the mess they’d made. I’m reminded a bit of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is also about conning your way into a more desirable life. The key word is “talented”: Ripley has more imagination and skill than the bluebloods whose lives he’s infiltrating, and so do the Kims.
Your insight into how text and subtext merge in Parasite is noted, and I think the flooding scene is a great example of that. Bong establishes the Kims’ living situation from the opening frame, with those socks being clothespinned out to dry, and he notes the climb Ki-woo has to make uphill to get to the Parks’ home—which itself, as we discover later, has its own insidious upstairs/downstairs dynamic. Bong makes us feel this disparity so viscerally, too, with the sewage water pouring through the Kims’ neighborhood and the bunker space functioning more or less like a windowless prison where its occupants are hiding from loan sharks.
The tension between the Kims and the Parks may be at the core of Parasite, but the introduction of the former housekeeper and her husband living in the bunker has its own class-related potency, too. How do the elites keep the lower classes down? By having them fight amongst themselves! I can’t remember the source, but I recall a piece written about the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016 that talked about how the Trump supporters and counterprotesters marching outside Quicken Loans Arena were expressing a common anger over a shared source of misery. Obviously, in the case of Parasite, the discovery of this bunker blows up the Kims’ scheme and sends the film reeling toward its chaotic, violent ending. But the Kims and the former housekeeper and her husband are not in a position to seek solidarity with each other. They’re all fighting for their lives.
We need to mention “the smell,” too. That’s such a potent theme that Bong follows through on, leading to the moment when “Mr. Kim” cracks and turns on his employer. The Kims have orchestrated this ruse in which none of them know each other and they’re all working independently within the Park household. But they cannot shake the common, conspicuous scent that gives them away, despite their plans to use different soaps. It’s a particular bother for Mr. Kim as both the elder Parks notice the smell—the smell of people who “ride the subway”—wafts into the back of their chauffeured car, to the point where Mrs. Park, after the sewage flooding surely makes the smell worse, rolls down the window. (The source of the film’s most prominent meme.) There’s something about the “stink” of poverty—that sense that you don’t belong and never will—that really gets under the skin.
As for where this belongs in the Bong filmography, I think his class-consciousness has been on display in films other than Snowpiecer: the Song Kang-ho-led family in The Host isn’t so dissimilar to this one, right down to the niche sporting expertise (in The Host, archery; here, the hammer throw), and he draws a sharp contrast between the country bumpkins who try to work a serial murder case in Memories of Murder and the by-the-books big-city type who arrives to take over the investigation. (I loved the small hat-tip to the slapstick in Memories of Murder toward the end here when an investigator following the Kims stumbles and falls in the background.) And Okja is so socially conscious that it inspires a pitmaster to quit his profession on an episode of the Peacock show Poker Face!
So let me ask you this question, Keith: In order for Parasite to win Best Picture, it had to have a broad base of support, including from the types of people that Bong holds in contempt. What do you make of the phenomenon of Bong’s satirical targets loving Parasite? Are Park types missing the point or perhaps seeing themselves as exceptions?
Keith: I think it’s that last suggestion. It’s possible to enjoy a satire and not realize you’re being targeted. You mention The Talented Mr. Ripley above and I’m reminded of a line from that movie: “You never meet anybody who thinks they’re a bad person.” And, again, we’re not even talking about “bad” people so much as blinkered people and it’s extremely rare for anyone to give up that level of privilege. (And it’s not like I or many of the other non-Academy members who saw this film are innocent on that front. There’s privilege in falling somewhere between the Parks and the Kims, too.) What’s more, I don’t think the film offers any solutions. The climactic violence does nothing to change the underlying system. The only thing Ki-woo can think of to pursue to free his father is to become wealthy himself and buy the house in which he’s trapped. That’s not likely to happen, and the way Bong stages the reunion as a fantasy is heartbreaking.
Whatever the reasons for Parasite’s success, I’m heartened by it. This is a deftly made, entertaining film but also a challenging one whose themes are impossible to ignore. Will it make anyone try to smash capitalism a la the pitmaster transformed by Okja? I don’t know. It’s a lot easier to stop eating meat than to give up participating in the system on which our society is founded, but it's good to be reminded of that system’s innate inequities. I’m also not surprised to see it make the Sight & Sound 100. Bong is undeniably a key 21st century talent and while Parasite doesn’t have the air of a grand statement—it’s too fleet and funny and never feels self-important—it’s instantly recognizable as a major work from a major director. I also suspect it will still be somewhere on the list in ten years, but who can predict these things?
Scott, can you predict these things? Any other last thoughts on Parasite?
Scott: I think it’s a keeper, because I have faith that Bong will only burnish his reputation as he continues making films and I also feel like critics will want to acknowledge this moment in Korean cinema. (Though I have a feeling Lee Chang-dong’s Burning will stick in people’s memories another decade down the line.) But who knows? As I’ve said before in this series, people keep on making great movies and there’s only room for 100 of them on the list.
As for final thoughts, I want to emphasize what an entertaining and funny movie Parasite is, because a lot of this analysis can make any film seem like homework. A lot of laugh-out-loud moments for me: “Kevin” praising Da-song’s rendering of a chimpanzee, only for the boy’s mom to tell him it’s a self-portrait; Park Dong-il looking genuinely wowed by the fake VIP service business (“You can tell from the card they’ve very high-class.”); the Parks fumbling their way through a sexual encounter on the couch while their son sleeps in a tent outside; the reference to “Da-song’s trauma recovery cake” at his birthday party. Bong’s The Host established him as a commercial director of Spielbergian skill— staging the big river creature attack sequence during the day remains audacious for a film using digital effects—and that instinct hasn’t left him. His work is not austere. It’s poppy.
And yet, the heart does break over that ending, doesn’t it? The son’s fantasy of liberating his father by succeeding professionally and earning the capital to buy the Kims’ house is, of course, just a fantasy. And it’s also the most tantalizing fantasy that capitalism has to offer: That you may be suffering now and the deck is stacked against you, but hard work will lead to upward mobility and you will have earned the life that good people like the Parks are enjoying. Then you can be charitable and sweet. As the elder Kim quips, “Hell, if I had all this money, I’d be nice too!”
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