For a fan of a particular artform who’s analytical by nature and has an ear to the ground for trends, there’s a special frisson that happens when one suddenly becomes aware of a new genre or subgenre just as it’s coalescing. The one happening right now arguably got its jump-start a couple of years ago with Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking Get Out and continued with his more recent work Us; Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You took it another step forward. If the subgenre has a label yet, I haven’t encountered it, but the parameters are basically this: horror/thriller movies not made by white people, with a clear sociopolitical subtext.
Many with more exposure than I have to Asian cinema will argue that horror is a well-established genre in the Far East, dating back at least to Mizoguchi’s 1953 ghost story Ugetsu. Even if you don’t count the Japanese kaiju movies of the ’50s and ’60s, there was an explosion of horror flicks being made in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and elsewhere in the 1990s and 2000s. Some of them caught on big-time with Gen Y audiences in the West; several were pallidly remade by Hollywood (The Ring, The Grudge, Shutter).
Although they put a refreshingly non-Western cultural spin on familiar tropes, those films were meant simply to scare audiences – not to make statements. Serial killings in their plots were more likely to be motivated by revenge than by class rage or racism. In Western filmmaking, there’s a strong trend of using the horror genre as a vehicle for satirical commentary about American culture, with George Romero’s zombie movies setting the standard. What we haven’t seen much of, as yet, is a place where these two creative streams come together – and make a big impression on audiences the world over.
Now we have a movie in this invigorating new mold that’s breaking through all the barriers, geographical and financial and aesthetic: Parasite, written and directed by Bong Joon-ho. Bong is a star in his native South Korea, but until now not a household name in the US. His 2006 monster movie The Host ranks high on many a list of Asian-made horror flicks, and Snowpiercer, his 2013 adaptation of a popular French dystopian graphic novel involving climate change, made some inroads in the West with its multiculti casting that including some big names.
Never mind all that; Bong’s name is on everyone’s lips this year. Parasite not only won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, but it did so with a rare unanimous vote among the judges. And it’s being touted as a serious contender for Best Picture honors at Oscar time – not Best Foreign Film, mind you, but Best Picture overall. Not bad for a movie with subtitles, in a genre typically dismissed by the Academy as more cultish than artsy.
The buzz is extremely well-earned. Aside from how well it’s resonating with audiences wherever it’s shown, Parasite is the sort of movie that Alfred Hitchcock would be making if he were alive today, less British and more woke. It starts out as a satirical meditation on the gap between the haves and the have-nots in contemporary South Korea and, about halfway through the story, makes a shocking, gleefully calibrated 180-degree turn from garden-variety deception and exploitation into hair-raising violence and terror.
Our “protagonists” are the clever-but-uneducated Kim family, who live in a moldy basement apartment and scramble to make a meager living from a variety of odd jobs. When a friend who’s moving abroad gives their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) a tip that an upscale family, the Parks, need a new tutor for their teenage daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the opportunistic Kims lose no time in insinuating themselves into the wealthy household. One by one, without letting on that they’re related to one another, each contrives to replace a Park employee: Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) becomes the new chauffeur to IT entrepreneur Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), who praises Ki-taek’s ability to refrain from “crossing the line,” classwise. Daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) offers art therapy to the Parks’ hyperactive young son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), who, we learn from his ditsy mother Choi Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), was once traumatized by a vision of a ghost. And Kim mom Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) takes the place of Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), the Parks’ longtime housekeeper, who previously worked for the architect who designed and lived in their elegant modern home before they moved in.
If you’ve paid attention at all to Gothic suspense movies of the past (including some of Hitchcock’s, such as Rebecca), you know that housekeepers who come as part of the package with a house purchase invariably know dark secrets and bear close watching. The house doesn’t have to be festooned with creepy turrets and Victorian gingerbread for that to hold true. When the Kims give Moon-gwang the boot, you know it’s not the last we’ll see of her. But how that plays out is a twist not to be spoiled here.
Parasite is bracingly original, genuinely thrilling and very artfully made. It takes its genre to a new level and will likely be viewed in future as a classic. If it has a notable weakness, it’s that none of the characters is sympathetic enough to engage our emotional investment. We may admire the rascally Kims’ wiliness, pity the poverty in which they’re mired, but they remain the primary agents of their ultimate fates, whatever unplanned detours lie in store. Nor are the Parks, benignly unconscious of their privileged status, characters with whom the average viewer is invited to empathize. Cinema Studies Masters’ theses will be written about which family best exemplifies the parasitic existence of the title. But there’s nobody here to love.
That’s okay. Class struggle is as worthy a topic for dissection, in any genre, as family strife or coming-of-age or romantic rivalry or any of the other classic setups for good storytelling. And it’s so inspiring to see filmmakers of color injecting jarring new perspectives into an industry that has grown stale with recycled concepts, while employing a level of cinematic craft as high as anything currently being produced on much more generous budgets. Parasite is a welcome breath of fresh air. It may even be the best movie of 2019.