Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park once promoted the idea that genre is dead, and it has stuck with me ever since. His band always experimented with different music genres, an idea that certainly did not start with them but did take off as they and other similar artists brought a bold new mixture of sounds into the 21st century. Physical and visual art has been doing this for ages, and now in 2019, it would be tough to find a musical artist that does not combine genres in some type of way. The record for the longest-running number-one song was broken this year by Old Town Road, a fusion of country and rap.
Movies have played with tossing genres together as well. We have both romantic and horror comedies, superhero movies with elements of spy thrillers, space operas, Shakespearean drama, and so on. Just think about how many different bits of genre, tone, and look are mashed together in the Avengers films. The concept of genre essentially being dead and gone is certainly substantial, and it is one that I believe filmmaker Bong Joon Ho would agree with. After all, he is doing such a proficient job of killing it to the point that both his films and career defy easy definition.
Bong’s films have ranged from a monster movie combined with family drama featuring touches of comedy and government disillusionment (The Host), to a post-apocalyptic dystopian picture that is both a tale of survival and of a socially conscious science-fiction epic with religious imagery (and climate change commentary!) (Snowpiercer), to a children’s fable about the friendship between a girl and a giant pig that turns into a devastating and damning cry of outrage against animal cruelty at the hands of big business that also borrows from Holocaust imagery (Okja).
Parasite, his latest work, slithers in and out of the cracks that separate genres- going between the feel of witty and playful to bitter resentment and terror. There are moments of horror, stomach-churning violence, hilarious physical gags, and somber family drama sometimes all within mere seconds of each other. It is such a clash of different genres and moods that it may as well be considered genreless, and yet it all somehow comes together in such a masterful way that you cannot help but leave the theater in a state of awe. For Bong, a filmmaker who is clearly nothing short of some kind of genius, it just may be his masterpiece.
The best possible way to experience Parasite is by knowing very little to nothing about it beforehand. Without spoiling anything major, the film is centered on the Kim family, an impoverished bunch that live in a shabby semi-basement in South Korea. The four of them struggle to survive working low-paying gigs like folding pizza boxes, cramming together next to the toilet and pressing their phones up the ceiling for the chance at WiFi, and having to watch drunken men piss outside their window while trying to eat dinner. Life is rough, smelly, and desperate, but the Kim’s luck changes when their son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), lands a job working for a wealthy family.
The trap is set. Ki-woo starts the job and gets to know the pampered and privileged Park family, especially the mother, Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo). When Ki-woo learns that Mrs. Park has been trying to find a teacher for her son, he suggests a professional he knows named Jessica, who in reality is his sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park). From there, the siblings manipulate the Parks into creating openings for their mother (Hye-jin Jang) and father (Kang-ho Song) to gain employment and infiltrate the home as well. However, secrets are being kept from both families and the film soon takes a harsh left turn away from whatever it may be that you thought it was.
One of the questions of Parasite is, of course, who exactly is the titular creature? Is it the poor Kim family who con their way into money by preying on a wealthier family with little remorse for who they hurt on their way up? Or is it the Parks, whose comfy lifestyle is only sustained by the labor they exploit from their poorer employees and who see fit to fire them and throw them back to the wolves without a second thought? The easy answer is both, but the ride that Bong takes you on to lay this principle out is worth every second. The film is a dense and bleak observation of the separation of classes, the differences in character they create, and the pungent resentment it can breed. The Parks are not especially bad people, but the Kims make sure to note that they are not nice despite being rich, they are nice because they are rich.
For the Kims, life is not so pleasant. It is a dog eat dog world, and the juxtaposition between their home at the bottom and the Park’s at the top (their house is literally up the hill) is barely a percentage of the amount of symbolism Bong packs into the film’s 132-minute runtime. At the start of the film, Ki-woo proclaims that everything is metaphorical. Perhaps this is a tongue-in-cheek way of Bong being self-aware. He has meticulous attention to detail- literally every shot, set, costume, and camera movement is made with purpose and subtext. Every frame is also loaded with metaphors and symbolism that serve the larger messages of the film. Bong’s mastery of the art of filmmaking is staggering, and it certainly helps that all of his work is superbly acted on top of it all.
More so than another big movie that came out recently, Parasite is a look at how a pitiless and unjust society can push people to their breaking point. It’s the exposure of a system that pits families and individuals against each other in a competition where no one can truly be the winner. It is something we can all relate to- that longing and admiration for a life in the world above coupled with a deep anger at the unfairness of you having to live below.
Rich and poor do not exist without the other, but the balance is no longer sustainable if it ever was. As more and more nations and millions of people take to the streets around the world to demand fundamental change, fair wages, and basic human rights, art and entertainment are shifting to reflect the sentiment. None have done it better than Parasite – its truths are too universal.