Over Independence Day weekend, my wife and I met up with my parents, who had splurged on a rental in Mill Valley, just outside San Francisco. Before I got there, I knew it was a large house, but none of us had any idea how gorgeous it would be. Sitting on top of a hill overlooking the entire valley, it was like the vacation cabin of your dreams: high ceilings, huge kitchen, a beautiful study, a turntable with a bunch of excellent vinyl, endless serenity. For those few blissful days, I understood what it meant to be rich — or what I assume being rich entails. The house wasn’t opulent or ostentatious, but it had every amenity — not to mention seclusion from the real world, which made me feel insulated, protected and pampered.
I loved that house, but I also noticed something strange. It was a short stay, but quickly I started assuming that I really was rich. It was odd: The house had created this transformation in me, convincing me that I somehow deserved to be there. Coming back home at the end of that trip was deeply depressing — I had to go back to my sad normal life. Maybe it’s best not to know how good the other half has it.
There’s no shortage of recent movies and TV shows that critique the one-percent, with everything from Ready or Not to Joker to Hustlers to Succession portraying the rich as soulless monsters. But in the superb new film Parasite, our hate-watch obsession with the wealthy is presented with a twist. Director Bong Joon Ho argues that money is never a thing anyone has — it’s always a thing you’re chasing. And when you’re not chasing money, you’re after the status you think it’s going to give you. Like me in that Mill Valley house, everybody in this South Korean dark comedy wants to be insulated from the anxieties they’re trying to keep at bay.
Perhaps not surprisingly, much of Parasite takes place in one magnificent house, the home of the Park family. It becomes the object of desire for the Kims, a family that’s not nearly as well-off. Stuck in a dingy basement apartment where they try to steal wifi from the neighbors, father Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin), teen son Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) and teen daughter Ki-jung (Park So Dam) are looking for a better life — and are willing to do just about anything to get it. Nobody in the family has a job, but Ki-woo gets a nibble, landing a gig as a tutor for Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the Parks’ eldest daughter. Instantly realizing how rich the Parks are, Ki-woo hatches a plan: He’s going to convince this family that he knows other workers who would be a great help to them around the house. One by one, Ki-woo will get his family members hired, never letting on to the Parks that they’re all related.
But to pull off this scheme, Ki-woo and his clan will have to muscle out the Parks’ current employees, which sets in motion Parasite’s nefarious plot. Through deception and cruelty, the Kims will systematically eliminate their competition. That doesn’t mean that Ki-taek and the others will kill anyone, but they’ll get close if circumstances necessitate it. We’ve all seen heist films — Parasite would be more accurately described as a pseudo-crime thriller in which the big haul is living off the Parks’ financial teat.
Parasite, which won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, comes from a filmmaker who has a habit of mixing genres together. (In The Host, Bong ingeniously melded a monster movie with a family drama. Snowpiercer was a gnarly dystopian indie with the soul of a blockbuster. For Okja, he fused a children’s film with a dark environmental thriller.) His latest similarly refuses to behave properly, moving from slapstick to satire to thriller to tearjerker without warning.
Similarly, Bong subverts nominal notions of “likability” by never making it entirely clear who we ought to be rooting for. I’ve seen Parasite twice now, and among the film’s most intriguing elements is that Bong doesn’t depict the Parks as particularly evil, which runs counter to the standard operating procedure with other topical one-percent dramas. This family hasn’t done anything to deserve being tricked — maybe the wife (Cho Yeo Jeong) is a little dim and the high-powered CEO husband (Lee Sun Kyun) a little detached, but they’re not inherently malicious people.
By contrast, the Kims conspire and lie, gaining the Parks’ trust while openly despising them. The Kims are the film’s parasite, relentless and voracious, which put me in a weird position. At heart, I’m more eat-the-rich than not, but I’ve also bought into the idea that people shouldn’t cheat the system to get ahead. The first time I saw Parasite, the Kims’ cynical scheming irritated me — especially because I sensed Bong wanted us to identify with them and cheer them on — but a second viewing suggested that’s too simple a reading.
As we’ll learn, all these characters are bound together, rich or poor, by a need to feel rich — a need to have the status, luxuries and security that come with money. When the Parks go on a vacation, the Kims camp out in the house, glutinously enjoying everything in the fridge and acting like they own the place. In essence, they’re play-acting the part of being the Parks — or what they perceive the Parks’ life to be like. But Bong views all of these people with a bit of wariness. Early on in Parasite, it’s established that the Parks’ sleek, modernist home was designed by a world-famous architect, but it’s noticeable that just about no one in the movie appreciates the house’s beauty — it’s just a fancy possession that the Parks like showing off and the Kims covet. (Tellingly, only the Parks’ kindly original maid, who’s soon to be supplanted by the conniving Kims, has a genuine fondness for the place and a reverence for its designer. In the world of this movie, she’s a sap.)
Materialism runs rampant in Parasite: Prestigious schools, super-comfy beds, manicured lawns and pricey private drivers are the realm of the Parks, and even if nobody in the family is actually happy, they can try to comfort themselves by looking at the accouterments around them that suggest happiness. The Kims aren’t any happier, but at least they’re poor — they think that having the Parks’ life will give them a sense of fulfillment. They’ve got something to aspire to.
There are surprises in Parasite that shouldn’t be spoiled, but let me just say that the characters’ complicated relationship with wealth will eventually get more complicated as new individuals enter the picture. Turns out, we’re all sort of parasites, each of us looking enviously at the next fat host we can glom onto. A new job, a nice promotion, the thing you don’t have that you just know will bring you contentment once you possess it — we jump on one thing and then quickly move on to something else, perpetually dissatisfied. What starts as a movie about economic inequality morphs into a lament about the bottomless sadness that no amount of money, belongings or status can ever fix.
Months later, I still think about that Mill Valley house. But I’m not chasing the house — I’m chasing the temporary feeling it gave me. That feeling eats the characters of Parasite alive. Because it can never make you full.
Here are three other takeaways from Parasite…
#1. So, how much does a Palme d’Or matter?
At this May’s Cannes, Parasite won the Palme d’Or, the most prestigious prize in the world of film festivals. But unlike a Best Picture Oscar, it’s an award that seems to only have a limited impact commercially or culturally. For example, here are the Palme d’Or winners over the last 10 years…
- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
- The Tree of Life
- Blue Is the Warmest Color
- Winter Sleep
- I, Daniel Blake
- The Square
How many of those have you seen, let alone heard of? At the U.S. box office, the highest-grossing of those films was The Tree of Life, which made only $13.3 million and starred Brad Pitt. Amour earned $6.7 million, and Blue Is the Warmest Color brought in $2.2 million. As for Academy love, The Tree of Life received three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, while Amour was nominated for five, winning for Best Foreign Language Film. (It, too, was up for Best Picture.) The Square and Shoplifters received Foreign Language nominations.
So you might argue that these movies didn’t make much of a dent, despite winning the Palme d’Or. I’d suggest, however, that the prize brings a certain amount of visibility to certain films that American audiences might not try otherwise. (Only two of the last 10 winners are primarily in English.) This makes me curious how Parasite will perform. It’s being released through NEON, a hip indie distributor that had success a couple years ago with the Oscar-winning I, Tonya. Bong’s film is one of the best-reviewed of 2019, but it’s still subtitled and has no stars. Can a Palme help lure viewers then? Hopefully so.
Not that every Palme winner needs the help. Twenty-five years ago, Miramax found a very cheeky way to promote its Cannes triumph, knowing full well that nobody was going to see the movie for that reason…
#2. It’s time to stop calling it the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
This year, there are a record 93 countries submitting films for the Academy Awards’ prize for the Best Foreign-Language movie, including South Korea with Parasite. Here’s how the process works: Each country that submits is only allowed to forward one contender, which means that France (a major filmmaking nation) has as many entries as North Macedonia, Kyrgyzstan or Slovenia. If your film wins, like Roma did in 2019, the prize actually goes to the country, not the director or producer. An Oscar committee narrows down the submissions to a short list, and then five finalists become the official nominees.
Here’s the thing, though: In 2020, the award is getting a brand new name. It will now be known as Best International Feature Film. The decision has been a long time coming, and it was probably inspired by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s acceptance speech for Roma, in which he said, with a poker face, “I grew up watching foreign language films and learning so much from them and being inspired — films like Citizen Kane, Jaws, Rashomon, The Godfather and Breathless.”
His point was obvious: Depending where you grew up, what’s considered “foreign language” can be very different.
So, how do you come up with a better name for the award that doesn’t sound so condescending, small-minded and vaguely xenophobic? In April, the Academy unveiled “International Feature Film,” with committee co-chairs Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann saying in a statement, “We have noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community. We believe that International Feature Film better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking, and the art of film as a universal experience.”
I’m down with getting rid of the old name. What’s difficult, however, is that the new name makes it sound like any movie that’s not from the U.S. could be eligible. But that’s not the case: It has to be in a foreign language. Also, I’m not sure “Best International Feature Film” gets around the problem that, for folks at home, “international” probably sounds as unappealing as “foreign language.” (Either way, it evokes some weird, arty foreign movie that will require you to read the whole time — heaven forbid.)
I suppose there’s no way to get around that inherent resistance some viewers will have about non-American movies that aren’t about Harry Potter or James Bond. But consider this: The British version of the Oscars, the BAFTAs, call their international prize “Best Film Not in the English Language.” That’s accurate without being pejorative — but, lord, what a mouthful.
Of course, I realize most people don’t pay much attention to the Foreign-Language award during the Oscar ceremony. The Academy might as well call it Best Time for a Quick Bathroom Break.
#3. The Criterion Closet is my happy place.
Everybody has his or her go-to self-care remedies. One of mine is going on YouTube and heading over to the Criterion Collection channel. There are plenty of cool videos available, including interviews and clips, but what I love is the Criterion Closet, in which a celebrated director or actor goes into the Criterion Collection’s New York offices and raids the closet that contains all of their acclaimed films.
For example, here is Parasite’s Bong Joon Ho rummaging around in 2014:
Bong’s is pretty indicative of what normally happens in these clips. You get to hear why someone loves certain movies, and then you get to watch that person grow increasingly more self-conscious as they keep grabbing more and more discs. Plus, you can hear the occasional strange story — like the fact that fellow South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) stole Bong’s copy of Medium Cool years ago. (Give it back, Park.)
Why I keep going back to the Criterion Closet is that I find each short video a little blast of movie joy. It doesn’t matter how revered the individual is: They all get nerdy and kid-like when they’re in the closet, rifling through the shelves like they’re filled with candy or toys. The videos help reconnect me to my pure love of films — not to mention the pleasure of gushing about great movies to friends. It’s such a simple concept, but I’ve had hours and hours of happiness watching and rewatching those videos.
Everyone from Michael Cera to Edgar Wright to Mike Leigh to Isabelle Huppert to Bill Hader has done really entertaining Criterion Closet videos. But this one is my all-time favorite. Ladies and gentlemen, just shortly before Moonlight won Best Picture, director and co-writer Barry Jenkins totally geeked out in the closet:
How can you not love the guy after watching that? Thanks to Jenkins, I now catch myself saying “Foundational … foundational” just like he does.