The Long Road to Bong Joon-ho’s Magnum Opus, ‘Parasite’
Widely regarded as a nearly flawless film, Parasite (2019) by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho has become an international cinematic sensation for its parabolic journey encompassing frightfully dense themes such as class inequality and upward mobility in a setting as dark, humorous, and unsettling for its proximity to the Western world.
The film is about the encounter and clash between two rich and poor Korean families. The underprivileged family’s luck begins to change when a friend offers the son Kim Ki-woo an opportunity to become the English teacher of the young daughter from the rich family. As Kim Ki-woo starts to infiltrate his parents and sister in the household to take over the slavish roles offered by the rich family – housekeeper, driver and babysitter – the scheme begins to slowly collapse and it does so in the most spectacular way.
On top of seeing great worldwide success, pulling in $131.4 million from around the globe, Parasite won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes 2020. Besides that, it was chosen as the South Korean contender for Best Foreign Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.
An Intellectual Upbringing
Despite his eager passion for films, Joon-ho wasn’t given the chance to enroll in a film program at his university due to his parents’ disapproval. Therefore, he was forced to take Sociology as his major. Despite that, he secretly kept his ties in the college film community. This detour worked to his advantage as it shaped his critical thinking in regards to generating witty social critiques on class inequality and injustice.
After he received his degree in the late 1980s, Joon-ho was finally given the chance to enroll in a two-year film program at the Korean Academy of Film Arts. Just like most aspiring filmmakers, his journey to success was an uphill battle. He seized every minute of his time making a variety of short films, which only garnered recognition from minor film festivals. Even his first dark comedy-drama feature film, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), couldn’t arouse much interest among audiences.
This detour worked to his advantage as it shaped his critical thinking in regards to generating witty social critiques…
Upon the release of his second project, Memories of a Murder (2003), Joon-ho obtained immediate commercial and critical success, bagging the award for best Asian film at the Tokyo International Film Festival. The film was followed by an even more successful project called The Host (2006), which gave him international exposure, making it the highest grossing South Korean film at the time. His filmography was then propelled to expand with box-office hits such as the recently-acquired Netflix film Snowpiercer (2013) starring Chris Evans, the mind-blowing Korean American co-production Okja (2017), which competed for the Palme d’Or along with his magnum opus, Parasite (2019). Funnily enough, the latter became the culmination of his personal experiences and his dreaded Sociology courses.
Breaking the Late Capitalism Anxiety Scheme
The problem that these so-called parasites pose in the modern society is held in front of us like a mirror throughout the entire film. We might define it as a sociological quandary that addresses the following questions: who are the real parasites in our society? The rich who feed themselves on the poor, or the poor who latch themselves to the rich to suck their resources in order to keep themselves alive?
While the answer seems to be addressed in the easiest way, that is an ultimate carnage, it is only at the very end that the vision of the director shines through. As the status quo is re-established, and the poor protagonist gets back to the fleabag hovel where he lives, we might get a glimpse of the parasite itself – the system.