**_An uncategorisable masterpiece_**
>_We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service – two dishes, but to one table._
- William Shakespeare; _The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke_, 4.iii.23-24 (1599-1601)
What is one to make of the utterly uncategorisable and impossible-to-define _Gisaengchung_ [_Parasite_]? Only the third film to win both the Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture, after Billy Wilder's _The Lost Weekend_ (1945) and Delbert Mann's _Marty_ (1955), _Parasite_ is one of the best-reviewed films of the century thus far and caused huge waves when it became the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. Co-writer and director Bong Joon-ho also tied with Walt Disney for the most Oscars awarded to one person in one night – four (Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay). On top of that, he became the first person in history to win more than three Oscars for a single film. In short, Parasite has had a significant, and relatively unexpected, impact.
But what exactly is _Parasite_? Described on its official website as a "_pitch-black modern fairy-tale_", even a comprehensive plot summary wouldn't adequately delineate its real nature – part comedy of manners, part social satire, part heist film, part thriller, part horror, part family drama, part farce, part economic treatise, part social realism, part tragedy, part allegory. And that's just the opening scene! It's the _Ulysses_ of cinema, adopting and shedding genres so often and so seamlessly that it effectively becomes its own genre. And, like _Ulysses_, it's exceptional in just about every way – screenplay (co-written by Bong and Han Jin-won), directing, cinematography, _mise en scène_, editing, production design, sound design, score, acting. There's not a weak link here, in a film that achieves that rarest of things – it lives up to the hype.
The Kim family are down on their luck. Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) reside in a tiny basement apartment, with their only window looking out onto a popular urination spot in a back alley. With all four unemployed, they eke out a meagre living folding pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant. However, their fortunes change when Ki-Woo meets Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), a childhood friend who is now at university. Min-hyuk works as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy family, but he's soon to leave Korea, and so suggests that Ki-Woo take over. Armed with a fake diploma created by Ki-jeong on Photoshop, Ki-Woo successfully applies for the job. The Park family, father Dong-ik, (Lee Sun-kyun), mother Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), and son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), welcomes Ki-woo into their lavish home, and upon discovering just how wealthy the Parks are, the Kims hatch an elaborate scheme to oust the Park's current domestic staff and take their places. And so, hiding the fact that they're all related, Ki-taek is hired as a chauffeur, Chung-Sook as a housekeeper, and Ki-jeong as an art therapist for Da-song. However, it doesn't take long before things start to go very, very awry for both families, in ways none of them (or the audience) could ever have imagined.
We live in an era where wealth is distributed upwards and the gap between the haves and have-nots is wider than ever. According to inequality.org, the richest 1% of the world's population controls 45% of global wealth. At the same time, adults with less than $10,000 capital make up 64% of the population and control less than 1% of the wealth. In 2018, Oxfam reported that the wealth of the 26 richest people in the world was equal to the combined wealth of the 3.5 billion poorest people. This is the _milieu_ of _Parasite_, a film which taps into some of the same ideological thinking as gave rise to "_Hell Joseon_" sentiments, wherein up to 75% of Koreans aged 19-34 want to leave the country.
Obviously enough, Bong's main themes are class division and class conflict, the artificiality of societal hierarchy, and the concomitant social inequality and differentiation in status that makes such a hierarchy possible in the first place. As thoroughly entertaining (and funny) as the film is, it remains, in essence, an economic treatise, albeit with a savagely satirical quality. However, make no mistake, this is a satire with teeth – the hilarity and playfulness of the long first act give way to a darker political vibe in the second, before Bong violently deconstructs his own allegory in the emotionally draining and batshit insane third act, ultimately driving the knife home in an epilogue that's about as different from the film's early scenes as you could imagine. Of course, this is far from the first time Bong has dealt with issues of class, touching obliquely on similar themes in _Sarinui Chueok_ [_Memories of Murder_] (2003), _Gwoemul_ [_The Host_] (2006), and _Madeo_ [_Mother_] (2009). _Parasite_'s engagement with class and economics, however, is far more overt, aligning it with Bong's English-language work, _Snowpiercer_ (2013) and _Okja_ (2015). Never before, however, has he been this caustic, this acerbic, but so too this compassionate, this witty. Indeed, _Parasite_ feels like a culmination, the film to which he's been building for his entire career.
In the film's press notes, Bong states;
>_I think that one way to portray the continuing polarisation and inequality of our society is as a sad comedy. We are living in an era when capitalism is the reigning order, and we have no other alternative. It's not just in Korea, but the entire world faces a situation where the tenets of capitalism cannot be ignored. In the real world, the paths of families like our four unemployed protagonists and the Park family are unlikely ever to cross. The only instance is in matters of employment between classes, as when someone is hired as a tutor or a domestic worker. In such cases there are moments when the two classes come into close enough proximity to feel each other's breath. In this film, even though there is no malevolent intention either side, the two classes are pulled into a situation where the slightest slip can lead to fissures and eruptions. In today's capitalistic society there are ranks and castes that are invisible to the eye. We keep them disguised and out of sight, and superficially look down on class hierarchies as a relic of the past, but the reality is that there are class lines that cannot be crossed._
In this manner, the film works as a literalisation of the theory that co-existence between the various classes is becoming increasingly difficult; the Kims and the Parks aren't simply differentiated due to wealth, rather they live in completely different worlds and have vastly different, and largely incompatible, ideologies.
One of the most deftly-handled elements of the film is Bong's avoidance of the clichés one so often finds in films dealing with economics – the Kims are by no means the default protagonists, a victimised family immediately worthy of sympathy, whilst the Parks are by no means the default antagonists, a callous family immediately worthy of scorn. Rather, the Parks are depicted as perfectly friendly and pleasant whilst the Kims are shown to be liars and scoundrels. Indeed, it's the Kims who are the more crassly materialistic of the two families – obsessed with their mobile phones and WhatsApp, we first meet them as they're wandering around their apartment, phones held aloft, trying to pick up their neighbour's WiFi signal. Later, as they ingratiate themselves with the Parks and acquire more and more access to a wealthy lifestyle, all four Kims start to carry themselves differently, as if being in such proximity to wealth has had a physiological effect.
There are no heroes and villains here – Bong is uninterested in trucking in black and white oppositions because such rigid diametrics aren't the norm in the real world. For all their scheming and lying, the Kims merely con their way into menial jobs, trying to earn enough to make survival a little easier. As for the Parks, their wealth has insulated them from the world of families such as the Kims, but their greatest crimes are disconnection and ignorance, nothing more. At the same time, the Kims are depicted as a far more unified and loving family than the Parks. Although all four Kims regularly occupy the same frame, to the best of my recollection, we never see the four Parks together in the same shot; Da-hye and Da-song rarely leave their rooms, Yeon-gyo spends most of her time in the kitchen and living room, and Dong-ik is seen most regularly in his car. It's a wonderful bit of cinematic shorthand to convey a thematic point, with Bong utilising the visual component of the medium to maximum effect – this is a filmmaker who knows precisely what he's doing.
It's in relation to the two family's status as heroes or villains that the film's title is so important. Strictly speaking, the Korean title, "_기생충_" ("gisaengchung"), means "helminth" rather than "parasite", but as a helminth is a parasitic worm, the slight difference in the translation isn't a big deal. In any case, a parasitic organism such as a helminth lives in or on a host and takes its nourishment from that host. A simple reading of this is that the Kims are the parasites and the Parks are the hosts, with the Kims feeding off the Parks' wealth and status. However, in a film where nothing is as it seems, things aren't that simple. Bong depicts the Parks as parasites as well – they've been rendered relatively helpless by their wealth, unable to complete basic tasks such as driving or cleaning without the assistant of working-class employees; i.e. they sustain themselves based off of the labour of their servants. And so, just as the Kims feed off the Parks, the Parks feed off the Kims, in what quickly becomes a symbiotic relationship. Concerning this issue, in his Director's Statement, Bong says,
>_it is increasingly the case in this sad world that humane relationships based on co-existence or symbiosis cannot hold, and one group is pushed into a parasitic relationship with another. In the midst of such a world, who can point their finger at a struggling family, locked in a fight for survival, and call them parasites? It's not that they were parasites from the start. They are our neighbours, friends and colleagues, who have merely been pushed to the edge of a precipice._
However, as strong as the film is narratively and thematically, it also has an aesthetic design to die for. Hong Kyung-pyo's cinematography, for example, is magnificent. Hong also shot Lee Chang-dong's superb _Beoning_ (2018), and the camerawork here has a similar smoothness and restlessness, gliding through the Parks house like it's a fifth member of the Kim family. Lee Ha-jun's production design is also praise-worthy, with the Kims' and Parks' living conditions contrasted in every way; the Parks live in a pristine post-modernist semi-open plan house, accessible only by an electronically controlled gate, and hidden from the street by tall trees and dense shrubs; the Kims, on the other hand, live in a cluttered and dilapidated apartment with barely any room, their toilet situated beside the aforementioned window looking into an alley.
It's also in relation to production design wherein one of the film's best metaphors is to be found, which is also a great example of just how much of a masterwork this is, how completely Bong is in control of his craft. As a film at least partly in the tradition of the "upstairs/downstairs" subgenre (think James Ivory's _The Remains of the Day_ or Robert Altman's _Gosford Park_), Bong literalises the separation between those above and those below insofar as stairways are a recurring motif. The Kims live in a basement apartment without stairs, mirroring their stagnation and inability to rise in a socio-economic sense. On the other hand, the Parks' lavish home has two main stairways – one going up, the other going down into the cellar. As Ki-jeong and Ki-woo gain more access to Da-song and Da-hye, they start to spend most of their time upstairs. Ki-taek and Chung-sook, however, along with Dong-ik and Yeon-gyo, spend most of their time downstairs, indicating a fissure between the adults and their children. The stairway to the cellar is its own unique animal, with Bong shooting it like he's suddenly directing a horror film (there's a thematic reason for this that I can't go into without spoilers). In this way, he bestows upon it an ominousness that, at first, makes little sense, but ultimately reveals itself to be a spectacular bit of foreshadowing. There's also a third stairway in the Park home, one not revealed until late in the second act, but one which has huge narrative and thematic importance.
_Parasite_ is a masterpiece, with Bong, operating at the peak of his abilities, never putting a foot wrong. It could have been a self-serving and didactic message-movie – a homily to the honour of the poor or a deconstruction of the unhappiness of the rich – but Bong is far too talented for that, avoiding rhetorical cant, and allowing the film to find its own space. Quite unlike anything I've ever seen, it works as allegory just as well as it works as social realism just as well as it works as comedy just as well as it works as tragedy, and so on. This is cinema as art; it's the best Palme d'Or winner since Terrence Malick's _The Tree of Life_ in 2011 and the best Best Picture winner since Kevin Costner's _Dances with Wolves_ in 1990. Bong is currently working with HBO to develop a limited series English-language adaptation, which fills me with dread, but no matter what happens with that project, no matter how good (or bad) it may be, here in 2020, Parasite has proven itself very much a game-changer, a film that deserves every bit of praise it's received.