Parasite (기생충, Bong Joon-ho, 2019)

“So metaphorical!” the ambitious son at the centre of Bong Joon-ho’s class war melodrama Parasite (기생충, gisaengchung) is fond of saying, and he’s right – it really is. “Hell Joseon” rears its ugly head again, only it’s not just the young who can’t climb out but mum and dad too. Sticking together all the way, this enterprising family have realised that the only way they’re going to enjoy the fruits of the modern society is by becoming hangers on, feeding off someone else’s perhaps unfairly gotten success, and if that means stomping on a few others just like them to get there then so be it. There’s no room for love or fairness in a class war. 

The Kims – mum Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), dad Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), and grown up kids Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam), all live together in a tiny semi-basement apartment in a rundown slum. Unable to find steady jobs, the family make ends meet with casual jobs like folding pizza boxes while cadging wi-fi to look for better opportunities. Better opportunities only arise, however, thanks to Ki-woo’s upper middle-class college kid friend Min (Park Seo-joon) who brings them a special gift from his dad of a stone said to attract wealth, and a hookup for Ki-woo with a possible job coaching the pampered daughter of a superrich tech entrepreneur. After faking his credentials, Ki-woo gets the job, and wastes no time at all bringing in his sister as an “art tutor” for the couple’s apparently “troubled” young son. Together, they conspire to get the chauffeur fired so dad can take over, and then plot to do the same to the housekeeper so mum can come too, colonising the house and living alongside the wealthy Parks with a view to someday ousting them. 

The house, a fabulously modern take on the traditional designed by a famous architect who sold it to the Parks when he moved to France, is a kind of “host” in itself. We might not all admit it, but there are few of us who would not want to live in a house like this, especially if we feel it has been deliberately placed out of our reach. The Kims are envious, yes, but not perhaps malicious. They simply want a kinder life, one free of the anxiety of always having nothing and then getting that taken away from you too. In a running gag, a drunk keeps peeing right in front of the Kims’ window, and later they literally find themselves drowning in a river of shit when torrential rain causes the local sewer system to backup and flood their fetid, low-lying slum forcing everyone into a makeshift “evacuation” centre where insincere public servants try to make excuses about not being bothered enough to make sure those with no money don’t drown just because it rained. 

The Kims aren’t bad people, but their desperation means they can’t afford to be kind. The true “villains” of Parasite aren’t the Parks or the Kims themselves, but the system which forces one set of oppressed people to oppress another. The Kims know they’re responsible for displacing people just like them – getting the driver fired, going after the housekeeper, etc, but they can’t afford to think about it, pausing only to wonder if maybe they found other jobs once they themselves start to feel comfortable. “She’s rich but still nice” Ki-taek says of Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong), only for his wife to counter no, “she’s nice because she’s rich”. Mrs. Park can afford to be nice because she has plenty. She has no need to worry about taking things from others, and is secure enough not to have to worry about people taking things from her. That makes her easy pickings for a family like the Kims, but it also hints that “niceness” is the natural condition of being human, the way we’re supposed to behave to each other in an ideal world where none of us are hungry or afraid. 

Then again, the Parks are not wholly “nice” even if they are polite in a superficial, wholesome sort of way. Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) in particular has a curiously feudal outlook in which he is perpetually preoccupied with the idea of his servants “crossing the line”, making it plain that there is a clearly defined border between those who rule and those who serve. The Parks’ young son is the first to notice that the Kims all smell the same even if he does so innocently, they all obviously use the same soap and detergent after all. Mr. Park, however, later takes it further, complaining about the way Ki-taek stinks up his car, resenting the smell of “poverty”, the mustiness born of living with damp and mould. To him, the Kims are not so much different from stink bugs, squatting in his home, members of “the great unwashed” unfit for his society. 

He does, however, need them. The Parks are as dependent on the Kims as the Kims are on the Parks, and they all need the house. Unfortunately, peaceful coexistence seems to be a distant possibility in a world of such fierce inequality as to encourage the most casual of cruelties. “All you have to do is walk up the stairs” Ki-woo later tells his father, but that’s easier said than done, especially when everything is telling you that you’ll always belong in the basement. 


Parasite is released in UK cinemas on 7th February.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Kim Dae-seung, 2012)

the-concubineYou can become the King of all Korea and your mum still won’t be happy. So it is for poor Prince Sungwon (Kim Dong-wook) who becomes accidental Iago in this Joseon tale of betrayal, cruelty, and love turning to hate in the toxic environment of the imperial court – Kim Dae-seung’s The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Hugoong: Jewangui Chub). Power and impotence corrupt equally as the battlefield shifts to the bedroom and sex becomes weapon and currency in a complex political struggle.

Prince Sungwon first catches sight of official’s daughter Hwa-yeon (Cho Yeo-jeong) after a hunting party and develops a dangerous attraction to her. His possessive parent, the Queen Mother (Park Ji-young), finds this worrying and manoeuvres to take Hwa-yeon out of the picture by having her brought to court as a concubine of the king. Hwa-yeon, however, has a love of her own in the roguish hanger-on Kwon-yoo (Kim Min-jun) and is willing to risk her life by defying the imperial orders and running away with him. The pair consummate their union but are discovered at first light whereupon Hwa-yeon agrees to go to court on the condition Kwon-yoo’s life is spared.

Some years later, Hwa-yeon is the reigning queen as the mother of the sickly king’s only son but her life becomes considerably more complicated when the king dies in mysterious circumstances. Power passes back to the Queen Mother who puts her son, Sungwon, on the throne, making Hwa-yeon and the young prince direct threats to her power base. Sungwon is still in love with Hwa-yeon but his mother forbids him from pursuing her. Forbidding is something his mother does quite a lot of, and it’s not long before Sungwon becomes frustrated with his lack of real power. Matters come to a head when Kwon-yoo also resurfaces as a eunuch at the imperial court.

The imperial court is a golden prison and a world in itself. Once entered, it cannot be escaped. Everyone is vying for power but no one really has any. The king’s ill health and lack of a direct heir has left him dangerously vulnerable and the Queen Mother in a position of unusual strength. If one thing is clear, it’s that she has had to play a long game to get here, done terrible things in the name of power or self preservation, and will stop at nothing to make sure she remains on top.

The Queen Mother’s ascendency is contrasted with Hwa-yeon’s fall as she finds herself forced into the court against her will. Realising her total lack of agency as the court ladies are instructed to obey protocol in undressing her for the bath rather than allowing her to undress herself, Hwa-yeon exclaims that she has no right to her own body. Hwa-yeon’s body is, now, imperial property to be used and abused by the king for his pleasure and his alone. However, the Queen Mother may have met her match in the steely and intelligent politician’s daughter who seems just as well equipped to play the game as she is.

Much has been made of the sexual content of The Concubine which was largely sold on its titillating qualities. However, even if the adult content is frank it is far from erotic as sex becomes a tool of control and manipulation – one of the few available to the subjugated women of the court environment. Aside from the first love scene between Hwa-yeon and her true love, Kwon-yoo (which is perhaps the least direct), none of the subsequent scenes is fully consensual, each a part of a wider scheme or courtly ritual. Rather than an expression of love or intimacy, sex is an act of mutual conquest in which each side, essentially, loses.

Sungwon finds himself powerless both politically and romantically, unable to wrest power away from his controlling mother or win the heart of the already brutalised Hwa-yeon. A prisoner of his own circumstances, Sungwon’s increasing feelings of impotence manifest in violence and erratic behaviour as his obsession with Hwa-yeon borders on madness. Far from a liberation, Sungwon’s sex life is, in a sense literally, dictated as his ritualised consummation of marriage is conducted in front of an audience shouting out commands from behind screen doors who eventually criticise him for his lack of stamina. Kwon-yoo has been robbed of his ability to engage in this game and his desire for revenge is intense yet he will have to take it from the shadows by stealth if at all.

Director Kim Dae-seung manages the intrigue well in crafting the intensely claustrophobic environment of the oppressive court whilst ensuring motivations and desires remain crystal clear. There are no winners here even if there is a reigning champion claiming the throne. The cycle of violence and manipulation seems set to continue as even those who entered as innocents leave with blood on their hands, having become the very thing they fought so hard against. Often beautifully shot with opulent production values, The Concubine is an ice cold thriller in which desire competes with reason but rarely, if ever, with love.


Original trailer (no subtitles)