NOTE: This review originally published January 27, 2020 has included many edits done on February 17th after watching this film again.
Foreign-language films have a habit of becoming catchy when you least expect it. This year’s hit foreign film comes from South Korea. It’s titled Parasite and done by renowned director Bong Joon-ho and it’s quite a telling story about the classes.
The Kim family have it hard as they live in a basement shack in a rough area of Seoul. Father Ki-Taek had good restaurant opportunities, but they all folded. Mother Chung-sook used to be a good hammer thrower. Son Ki-Woo is trying to get into a good college and their daughter Ki-Jeong is unsure of her future. They struggle with working menial jobs, have to roam near the windows for free Wifi, have a lot of bugs in their place and sometimes have no choice but to watch drunks urinate outside their window.
Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk visits with him before he leaves for college. Min-hyuk has been working as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy Park family. Min-hyuk recommends to Ki-woo he take over and even fake university credentials. Min-hyuk trusts Ki-woo way more than those other ‘drunken college boys’ to replace him in the tutoring job. Ki-woo is able to make a successful forgery and he’s hired to be the English tutor to the Park’s daughter Da-Hye. The Kim family hope to get jobs within the Park household. The Parks are hugely admiring about their 7-year-old son’s drawings and are looking for an ‘art tutor.’ Kim Ki-jeong, the daughter, is able to pose as a student from Illinois under the name of Jessica. Ki-jeong is hired and even able to successfully convince the mother something’s psychologically wrong with the son. Now that Ki-jeong is hired, it looks like there aren’t any more positions. Not unless they get the chauffeur and the maid fired. Which is exactly what the Kims do! The limo driver is ordered to drive Ki-jeong close to her block but without him knowing, she takes her panties off and leaves them to get him framed for having sex in the car. It works and the father Kim Ki-taek is hired as the limo driver. Then there’s the maid Moon-gwang. She’s a good servant, who even served the original tenant of the mansion who was the architect. She makes her allergy to peach aware which is perfect! The Kims shave peaches and throw it when she’s around to get her to think she’s come down with tuberculosis. Moon-gwang has to quit and the mother Kim Chung-sook is hired to replace her.
Although all four have jobs in the Park household, they have to disguise they’re not family. That’s not easy as the Park’s son, Park Da-song, notice they all have the same smell. Also all have to make their exact whereabouts secret to them not just so that it’s unknown they live in the same place, but so the Parks don’t know they live in a rutty area. Soon the Parks leave for a camping trip, which they will be using their own car and entrusting Chung-sook as the maid and leaving the others off. As the Parks are away, it’s perfect opportunity for the Kims to have their own party at the place. And they have every reason to. They all made it!
However during their fun on a rainy night, something unexpected happens. They have a visitor at the house. It’s the former maid Moon-gwang. She said she left something important in the bunker. The Kims didn’t know the Parks had a bunker. It’s a bunker a lot of rich people have either to avoid loan sharks or in case nuclear war happens. This bunker was ordered to be built by the first house-owner and something even the Parks don’t know about, but Moon-gwang does. In that hidden room at the bottom of the bunker, Chung-sook discovers Geun-sae, Moon-gwang’s husband, is in it. He has been hiding down there for years to avoid loan sharks over his failed restaurant. When the other Kims discover Moon-gwang and Geun-sae a fight ensues after Moon-gwang threatens to expose their scam. The family and couple use technology to fight for control. However the fight ends when Chung-sook learns the family is coming back sooner than expected because of the heavy rain and they expect ‘ramdon’ with cubed beef. Party’s over, right?
Not quite. The Kims have to hide and Chung-sook kicks Moon-gwang down the stairs for which she receives a fatal head blow. Chung-sook serves the Park family the ramdon after they arrive with the other Kims hiding under the furniture waiting to escape. It’s a long process as the parents sit on the sofa watching Park Da-song play ‘indian’ in his tent out in the rain. The Parks even get sexual on the couch and even talk about the smell of Kim Ki-taek, unknowing that he’s underneath the sofa and hears it all. The three Kims escape the mansion and return back to their home in the rain, only to find it’s almost completely flooded and they’re one of many people from the neighborhood that have to sleep in a makeshift shelter in a gymnasium. The next morning, Ki-woo and Ki-taek have a heart-to-heart talk about life and plans.
All appears not to be lost. The Parks are having the birthday party for Da-song and the staff are invited. All four Kims can assume their guises again. It’s based on the ‘indian’ theme that Da-song loves. It’s if party with family and friends. Ki-taek is to participate with Park Dong-ik in an ‘indian attack’ skit with the birthday cake and is reminded he’s a paid servant. The party goes well but just as Ki-woo returns to the bunker with the scholar’s rock, he encounters an angry Geun-sae. Geun-sae has had it that he’s been down there for so long and that he just lost his wife because of the Kim’s stupidity and selfishness. Geun-sae wants revenge and Ki-woo is first to get it as Geun-sae uses the scholar’s rock to hit him over the head. Then Geun-sae goes out in the yard where the party is and stabs Ki-jeong in the heart. That provokes a seizure from Da-song which Dong-ik orders Ki-Taek to drive him to the hospital. That leads to even bigger chaos as Chung-sook fatally stabs Geun-sae, but Geun-sae is alive long enough to look Dong-ik in the face and shout ‘respect.’ Angry with it all, Ki-taek stabs Dong-ik and runs away out of everyone’s sight.
The aftermath is that Ki-jeong died and Ki-woo was in a coma for weeks. Ki-woo came out of it, but it left him with a brain injury that causes him to laugh unexpectedly. He and Chung-sook were convicted of fraud and impersonation and Ki-taek is at large missing without a trace. The Park house has been resold to a German family who just arrived. Despite the deaths of Moon-gwang, Geun-sae, Kim Ki-jeong and Park Dong-ik, it sold. Even with new owners, Ki-woo notices a light from the bunker flash on and off. Ki-Taek is alive and hiding in the bunker and flashes a message of Morse Code every day hoping his son will see it. Ki-woo has a message of Morse code for his father he hopes to deliver one day. A message of a hope that they can be a family again and how they can live prosperously in that house, and done fairly.
The interesting thing of this film is that it’s very creative in showing the biases poor people have of rich people and the biases rich people have of poor people, and biases both have of certain peoples in general. For all intents and purposes, the Parks hired the Kims who disguise themselves as unrelated workers. The Parks appear to treat the adult Kims as people, but will also treat them as the hired hands they’re supposed to be, so there has to be a limit. With that, all that happens seems to send a message of the biases. We see it in the Park family as they common talk about the smell of poor people, especially Mr. Kim. It seems like poor people have a smell only the Parks can sense. We also see how the Parks seem to think the smallest instance of something wrong is a big problem and the wife believes whatever the Kim’s tell her! We see it in the Kims how they have the belief that the rich are very naive and all four are ready to take full advantage of it. Even at the ‘Kim party’ and how they talk of money being a solve-all.
The film also shows how both the Kims and the Parks can expose their own weaknesses. We see it at the beginning as the Kims think their only way into a better life or even a life of wealth is to scam their way into wealth. We see how Park Da-song likes to fantasize about being an ‘indian’ and the Park family toys around with Native Americans. We see it at events like the birthday party, we see it during the rainflood, we see how Mr. Park has a framed article from an American magazine where he’s named ‘Nathan Park.’ We sense it in the use of English words and phrases, English names and association with the United States like all these elements suggest something about class structure and importance. Even how when Mrs. Park hires Ki-woo, she wants to give him the name ‘Kevin.’ We even see how despite the Parks neglect Moon-gwang and Geun-sae, Geun says ‘respect’ to him. The rich Parks appear to marginalize, but the Kims and the couple still have regard to them. Even seeing how Ki-taek can’t mourn at his daughter’s urn but mourns at an obituary of Nathan says something.
Even without the theme of the wealth gap, this film is also interesting of how the story is constructed. At first you think the film will follow a basic linear path in therms of telling its story. There are even times in which even after one incident happens out of the ordinary, it appears it will still end in normal fashion. However it doesn’t. What you anticipate might be a good ending actually ends up being something totally bizarre. The first half of the film appears like a massacre is the last thing to expect the film to end with, but you’ll be surprised. One source mentions that it ended that way because Korean movies are known to be big on blood and gore, just like a lot of Japanese movies. However it does make one think whether the film and its scenes were done right or not. Sometimes you think it could have been done better if this was done that way. Then you think if it did, this would have to be left out. In the end, you’re left convinced the film was done the right way. Including the massacre scene when Kim Ki-jeong is killed, but Park Dong-ik cares about his son’s seizure instead. Even the scene where Moon-gwang falls and recieves her fatal concussion seems like the right thing to have. Also the aftermath looking like it ends the film right as a redemption of humanity at the end and actually makes you feel for the surviving Kim family, despite Ki-woo’s message of an against-all-odds hope.
I’ll also this film is a welcome reminder of the rich-poor gap in South Korea. If you remember years back, I saw a film called Nameless Gangster. That film showed the conditions of South Korea in the early 1980’s and the protagonist struggled with a limited wage as a fisherman. That’s why he chose to be an organized crime don. Because he felt it was the only way he could get ahead. The film also showed how things became better for South Korea as democracy was implemented just before the Seoul Olympics. I was left with the impression that life for residents got way better since democracy was introduced. Parasite reminds me it is, but there are still people in South Korea that slip through the cracks. On top of that, the gap of rich and poor is just as present in South Korea as it is in any developed nation.
Top accolades for the film go to director Bong Joon-ho. Bong is actually South Korea’s first director to break into North America. He had a good reputation in South Korea, but he expanded into North American film after people take note of 2009’s Mother. His English-language breakthrough came with 2013’s Snowpiercer and critics were impressed. Even after returning back to Korean films, Bong has still caught a lot of attention with films like Sea Fog (which he was producer) and Okja. This is possibly his best work.
This film is very complex as Bong’s not just simply working with a complex story he co-wrote with Han Jin-won, but even working with a lot of complex styles of scene. Bong got the idea from this story from an actual murder of rich people by their servants. It was 1933 in France and the two servants that killed their master were sisters. Bong does a good job in making a great story sending a message about the division of the classes. The little elements that add to the theme of the rich-poor gap like the ‘poor person smell,’ the use of English when they have something significant to say, the storm which makes the Kim family face the music about what they’re doing, the scholar’s rock which goes from a good-luck object to something Geun-sae attempted to kill Kim Ki-woo with before the massacre, the use of Morse Code, Nathan’s constant talk of crossing-the-line and the talk of plans between Ki-woo and Ki-taek, they all help add to the color of the story and to the theme.
Already there are a lot of videos on YouTube that talk of various elements of the film like the multi-leveled house and how the Kims are always beneath the Parks, the use of sunlight in the Park domain, the ending seen as false hope, and the use of bugs during certain scenes. There are scenes that get you wondering as well. Like the scene where Park Da-hye has sex with Kim Ki-woo. Some could say it’s sending the message the two classes aren’t that far apart. Others could say it’s where the rich like to screw the poor. You be the judge! Also you figured halfway into the film that the scam of the Kims would eventually be uncovered, but I bet you didn’t expect it during a massacre at a child’s birthday party!
The acting from all ten actors involved was excellent to see as they all had something to add and they did it all as one team rather than a single actor standing out. If there was anything close to a standout, it had to be Song Kang-ho as the Mr. Kim. He did an excellent job as playing a man who appears to be the one most caught in the middle. Choi Woo-shik was also good as the hopeful but insecure Kim son who starts it all and ends up the voice of reason at the end. The production design was also very good. It was excellent in showing off the modern rich-poor gap of the three classes very well. The cinematography of Hong Kyung-pyo was also excellent. The music from Jung Jae-il also added to the storytelling too.
Parasite begins in normal fashion, leads to a comedic middle, leads to the conclusion in bizarre fashion, and ends on a somber note. It does seem like an odd construction of a film, but Bong makes it work. Plus he has a lot to tell about the gap between rich and poor. It’s a gap we see all too well in our own lives.
Even though the Vancouver International Film Festival is officially over, I still have four films left to review. Now on with the fourth-last. I have a habit every VIFF to see at least one national entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Oscars. Here at the VIFF I saw Haemoo: South Korea’s official entry. I’m glad I did.
The film begins with Kang Cheol-ju, a captain of a fishing ship the Jeonjinho that’s old, crumbly and is catching less than ever. Because of the low catches in the fishing industry and the difficulties with South Korea’s economy, Kang is in danger of losing his ship and his livelihood. In the meantime one of his crewmen Dong Sik has just joined the boat. He doesn’t see himself pursuing a livelihood as a shiphand and is contemplating construction.
Kang has just received an idea of how to make money for his ship, big money. He’s been offered a deal to go into the illegal trade. He’s willing to involve himself with anything to get him ahead, whether it be illegal jewels or even illegal immigrants. He knows it means going into international waters and possibly get arrested by the coast guard but he believes it will work.
One day after going into international waters they spot a ship full of illegal immigrants from China and North Korea. They have to make the tricky transfer from their ship to the Jeonjinho. Yes, walking across. Thirty or so men and one female make it. However there’s one young frail woman who fell into the water. Dong Sik doesn’t think. He rushes out to save her. After saving Hong Mae from drowning, she along with the other immigrants are fed hot ramen at first. However the police are suspicious of Kang and what his boat is up to. Kang’s already under suspicion for a long history of evading loan sharks. Every time a coast guard boat comes by, he has to hide all the illegals in the fish tank, risking them to suffocating and unhealthy conditions.
The immigrants are unhappy about their treatment but Kang makes an example to the crowd by throwing one in the water and showing them who’s boss. Dong Sik knows that Hong Mae shouldn’t have to deal with such harshness so he finds a safe spot for her. Soon the two fall in love and Dong promises her safety. However it becomes threatened when the immigrants are all put back into the fish pit as a loan shark makes a visit. Dong Sik keeps Hong Mae from entering. After the shark’s visit, it’s discovered all of the immigrants in the pit are dead. It only boosts Kang’s lust for power as he wants them chopped with an axe before being tossed out at sea and their personal belongings burned. One of the crewmen tell him off for what he did only to be killed by Kang.
Hong Mae has seen all that happened and has no trust for anyone, not even Dong Sik at first. Nevertheless Dong Sik promises her safety. He knows Hong Mae will be seen as a lust object or a womanizing sailor and as a threat to Kang as she’ll know the truth. Things only get worse for the Jeonjinho as the power is completely out. Then it’s given away about Dong Sik’s hiding of Hong Mae. As expected Kang feels she’ll land him in jail and the sailor animalistically wants a go at her. Dong Sik knows he has to protect her from the two despite how challenging it is. He knows he will have to kill some of them. However it’s after the Jeonjinho collides with a freighter that solidifies the fates of all and paves the way for an ending that’s unexpected and keeps you thinking long after the movie.
One thing I have to say is that the script is unique for a lot of surprising things. At first you think the film’s protagonist will be Kang because the focus of the story first appears to be about him and his ship. Instead it ends up being about Dong Sik even though he is focused on very little at the beginning. Another unique thing is how the deaths of the immigrants made animals of some of the key shipmen on board. One example is of how Kang first appeared to be a typical authoritarian jerk to the immigrants but soon his lust for control would just make a ruthless animal of him. Even the ship mechanic who was just simply a womanizer made like a mindless dog to Hong Mae and had nothing else on his mind but to have sex with her. Another surprising thing is how the ship is doomed to sink but Kang is determined to keep it afloat despite it being hopeless. It’s almost like Richard III’s “My horse. My horse. My kingdom for a horse.” In the end, the ship becomes the judge, jury and executioner of Kang. And for those who saw it, you’ll know the last surprising thing was the ending. It’s an ending that will leave you asking your own questions. I know it left me with my own questions.
The one thing is that it is a very good movie but it did have its noticeable flaws. First thing is that it makes a good honest effort of making a love story in a scenario that’s hard to stomach. For those who don’t know, this film is based off of an actual illegal immigration case from South Korea in 2001 where a fishing boat carrying illegal immigrants accidentally left 25 dead. The difference between Haemoo and the actual case is that the ship never sank, there were many more surviving illegal immigrants and all the crewmen were brought to justice. Nevertheless it makes the romance too awkward because of the testy subject matter. I know I’ve seen films before that have made what would normally be unwatchable material end as a triumph of the human spirit but I sensed some unevenness in it. Nevertheless this is a very brave attempt.
The biggest accolades for this film should go to director Sung Bo-Shim. Lately South Korean directors are starting to make a name for themselves internationally. The most notable being Boon Joon-Hu who directed the critically acclaimed 2009 Korean film Mother and this year’s English-language film Snowpiercer. This time Boon co-writes the script with Shim in his feature-length directorial debut. It’s an excellent debut. The biggest of the standout actors is Kim Yoon-Seok. Even though he was not the protagonist, he was the scene-stealer as the power-hungry Kang whose lust for power would eventually destroy him. Multitalented Park Yoochun was also impressive as the young Dong Sik who was the only one on the ship who appeared to have any conscience to what was really happening. Han Ye-Ri was also very believable as the young Hong Mae but her best part was definitely the end. The special effects and action parts added to the intensity of the film and the score composed by Jeong Jae-il fit the movie excellently.
Haemoo (Sea Fog) is not a flawless movie or a flawless story. Nevertheless it is an excellent debut from a promising South Korean director. We’ll have to wait until Oscar time to see how it fares.