The most-talked about movie over the past 10 months has been Parasite. The South Korean film was awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture last week in a surprise result, beating out many other favourites, including 1917, Jojo Rabbit and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Not only that, but it has also revealed vast amounts of critical acclaim, a favourable audience response and been a box-office success (at the time of writing, gathering 204 million), becoming one of the highest-grossing South Korean films of all time.
The film has famously been very hard to discuss and hard about, as it’s very much a movie experienced completely cold. Much of the reason for this is because the film is very much an evolving and ever changing film – the film begins life as one type of film, and then mutates into something else. The general premise of the film is that it is centred on an unemployed and poor family of four, the Kim family, who all manage to lie and con their way into getting jobs at the lush, rich and upper class Park family household.
The first part of the film, the 50 minutes or so is a much more lighthearted affair. As each member of the Kim family get their job, the family’s schemes do get a little darker – both Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) lie and scam in their job interview; then the family get the chauffeur fired by planting Ki-jeong’s underwear in his car, and finally, the family exploit the housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun)’s allergy to peaches by framing her to have tuberculosis, knowing she will most likely be fired. Although, the film is slowly and slowly getting darker at this point, the film is still an amusing, witty heist comedy that is about a much of flawed and morally-ambiguous but still likable and relatable group of anti-heroes.
Then, everything completely changes. After the successfully getting the mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) a job as the new housekeeper, it looks slightly that the rest of the film will be centred on the Park mother and father – Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) and Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) discovering the family’s lies. The son, Da-song discusses that the family have a certain “smell” and all the family are sitting around in the Park house, enjoying their rich lifestyle, setting the perfect scene for the Park family to come home and discover them. This ends up not being the case, however as something else entirely awaits the Kim family, as is shown in a perfectly executed and utterly brilliant twist.
At this point in the film, as the Park family have gone away to go camping for Da-song’s birthday, the Kim family exploit their absence to briefly immerse in the upper class lifestyle. In one of the movie’s more quieter moments, the family are sitting around a table and talking. The scene is relatively quiet and calm, although this is a sudden thunder storm that begins in a brilliant bit of pathetic fallacy that foreshadows the future events of the film.
All of the sudden, a doorbell rings. The doorbell is especially important as it happens exactly half way through the film – it was apparently on page 73 of the film’s 144 page script, and this signifies the completely different new movie that is about to unfold. Soon enough, the family discover that the one ringing the doorbell is Moon-gwang, the former housekeeper, who has apparently “left something” in the basement underneath the kitchen.
Suddenly, the tone is very different – everything feels quite sinister and cold. Chung-sook asks the family what should she do, to which Ki-woo replies that this is “not in the plan”. This is especially important, as up until this point, the film has been playing out exactly how the Kim family have wanted it too. They have all got their jobs the way they planned, and they are enjoying the rich lifestyle the way they wished. Moon-gwang’s arrival, however, creates a curveball that none of them, including the audience, have expected. Jung-eon’s performance in this scene is really brilliant, particularly her occasional out-of-kilter laughing, which relates to the uneasy and cold atmosphere.
The family do let Moon-gwang into the house, and she makes her way downstairs to the basement. Before she goes, however, she and Chung-sook have an exchange, during which Moon-gwang quite sinisterly asks her if she would “like to come down with [her]”. This moment is all shot in a close-up of Moon-gwang’s face, and here, she is looking directly into the camera.
This technique is used throughout Parasite a lot, including a cut away to Moon-gwang and her husband’s past as she discuss their past at house, and the very last shot of Ki-woo looking into the camera after he has lost everything. This is also true of the rest of Joon-ho’s filmography – the 2003 film Memories of Murder, his first break-out hit, ends on the lead, Park (also played by Kang-ho) looking directly into the camera. The way in which Joon-ho uses it here, however, is a way of directly addressing the audience – he is asking the audience whether or not they want to come with the film on it’s new dark path. Also, the camera does not cut away from Moon-gwang in this moment, not even to cut back to see Chung-sook’s reaction. As she goes down into the basement, we see her disappear and descent into darkness, and the film descents into darkness along with her.
Chung-sook eventually goes downstairs to see what Moon-gwang is doing, we see that she is trying to move a cabinet in the basement. As she and Chung-sook are able to move it, we a given what the real twist of the film is – that Moon-gwang’s husband, Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon) is underneath the basement in a secret bunker. He has been living there for over 4 years on the run from loan sharks, and Moon-gwang has been secretly feeding him over the years.
This twist is addressed in an utterly brilliant way – over the course of a 40-second sweeping panning shot, we follow Chung-sook through the corridors, only to discover the second basement at the end of it. The use of this panning shot shows the audience a clear outline of the basement, which is significant as it becomes very important later, but by doing all in one shot, does it in a quick, pacey and efficient away. Also, one of the most important to Parasite is the film’s production design, and by opening the door to the second basement, we are introduced to more a grimy, dirty setting with a lot of dark colours, as opposed to the grand, posh, and gorgeous setting of the Park household. As the characters descend into this world, we, as the audience, descend with them into a much darker, nasty and sinister movie.
This perfect 10 minute sequence, are an utterly brilliant and thoughtful way of revealing a twist. Not only that, it brilliantly prepares the audience for the new dark, sinister and unexpected film that they are about to watch, unlike the lighthearted and familiar one that they have previously been watching. Parasite is very much a film that has surprises, yet these surprises never feel out-of-place or strange in the context of the overall film. As he showcases in this film, Joon-ho is a brilliant craftsman, and this sequence is him at his very best.