Nothing good happens at the top, or the bottom, of the stairs. Neon/CJ Entertainment

Movies

Why the Twisty Korean Thriller Parasite Has Emerged as an Oscar Front-Runner

The subversive psychological drama finds director Bong Joon-ho staying true to his genre roots while expanding his thematic ambitions.

In terms of locations, Parasite is more constrained than Bong Joon-ho’s previous projects. But in the breadth of characters and themes, it’s richer and more complex than anything the Korean filmmaker has tried before.

His subversive allegory is set inside the world of a poor family living in a cramped basement, and a wealthy family with a nonchalant attitude toward hiring domestic help. For Bong (Snowpiercer), it’s a chance to revisit some of his favorite genre elements while scrutinizing socioeconomic class.

However, even if it sounds like following in the footsteps of Us or Shoplifters, it’s not. The film’s widespread acclaim on the festival circuit has made that clear.

“I never intended to create a propaganda film. I don’t think about these deep political issues on a day-to-day basis,” Bong said at Fantastic Fest in Austin. “The issue of class is something that surrounds us in our daily lives. Artists explore these issues because we all live in this capitalistic system. It’s very natural for us to express these things.”

Combining elements of broad farce, searing social drama and dark psychological thriller, the story specifically follows an unemployed family of four, struggling to make ends meet, that stumbles into a potentially lucrative opportunity. One by one, they scheme to replace the domestic staff at a posh mansion without the homeowners ever finding out. Then the plan backfires in shocking fashion.

“It’s really about looking into the private lives of others. In reality, it’s very rare for the rich and poor to come so close to each other that they can smell one another,” Bong said via a translator. “Usually, they occupy different spaces and they’re always separated. In this film, you have situations where they come very close.”

Part of the inspiration for Bong hearkens to his days working various part-time odd jobs while in college in Seoul during the late 1980s. Among them, he tutored for several rich families.

“I clearly remember how it felt when I opened the gates to the house,” he said, “I was teaching a middle school boy, and I remember him taking me to the second floor of the house and showing me the private sauna. I was very shocked, but he was very proud of it. I was fired after two months.”

One of the film’s most ambitious behind-the-scenes tasks involved designing and building the mansion from scratch. That involved Bong collaborating with production designer Lee Ha-jun and with an actual architect to incorporate all of his quirks.

“I already had a basic sketch of the house in mind when I was writing the script. Without that certain structure, it was almost impossible to tell the narrative,” Bong said. “The architect would be like, ‘What kind of idiot builds houses this way?’ [Lee] really suffered between me and the architect. Ultimately, the house came out beautifully.”

Bong admits the film’s title was considered insensitive and risky, because the word “parasite” carries such a negative connotation in Korea. Yet he said it’s not as simple as it might appear.

“Because the story is about the poor family infiltrating and creeping into the rich house, it seems very obvious that ‘parasite’ refers to the poor family. That’s why the marketing team was a little hesitant,” Bong said. “But if you look at it the other way, the rich family are also parasites in terms of labor. They can’t even wash dishes or drive themselves. They leech off the poor family.”

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