There is a moment in the quirky black comedy thriller Parasite where the rich, self-satisfied owners of a perfect house get the shock of their lives, when strangers suddenly turn up at a cozy family outing.
It was reminiscent of the scene at Sunday’s Oscars, when Hollywood’s best gasped for breath when a group of South Koreans came on stage after having stolen the night from the promising favorite, 1917 by Sam Mendes.
Parasite made history by becoming the first film in a foreign language to win Best Picture, the best prize. It even became the first South Korean film to win some sort of Oscar.
It can be bizarre as the plot for Parasite – a filthy family in the capital of South Korea, Seoul, makes itself artisanally in the home of a rich family – it was inspired by the own experience of the 50-year-old director. Pictured: a luxury Korean home
It was especially surprising because, while a million people flocked to see the film in South Korea, relatively few people bothered to visit it in the UK and the US – despite winning the coveted Palme d’Or in Cannes.
It also won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Film, and his gifted director Bong Joon-ho, who was named Best Director, could not hide his joy. “When I was young and I was studying film, there was a saying that I had written deep in my heart,” he said in his acceptance speech. “The most personal is the most creative.”
The saying that he borrowed from his filmmaker Martin Scorsese certainly applies here. It can be bizarre as the plot for Parasite – a filthy family in the capital of South Korea, Seoul, makes itself artisanally in the home of a rich family – it was inspired by the own experience of the 50-year-old director.
The son of a graphic designer and a housewife, Bong grew up in modest circumstances in the South Korean city of Daegu, and then the capital. It was in his early 20s, around the time he was involved in student demos against the country’s military rulers, that Bong got a taste of how the other half lives. He got a job as a maths teacher with the son of a hugely rich family in Seoul.
It also won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Film, and his gifted director Bong Joon-ho (photo), who was named Best Director, could not hide his joy
His girlfriend – now his wife of more than 20 years, Jung Sun-young – gave the same boy English and proposed Bong as a “reliable friend, even though I was really bad at math,” he says. “That’s how it works with those tasks. It’s not like they post a lot of ads looking for domestic help – you’ve been introduced. “
And that’s about how the entire Kim family in Parasite manages to find work in the home of the rich Park family.
The film has been praised as a spiky class war drama, but Bong maintains that it is really about the polarization of society. For him it has no real villains. Both families are “parasites,” he argues: poor Kims clearly exploit the rich parks, but the latter are wasting cheap labor from the first.
Until they meet the Parks, the Kims scrape past and fold pizza boxes for money. Then the son, Kim Ki-woo, in his twenties, gets a job as the English tutor of the teenage daughter of the Park.
He sees an opportunity and gets his younger sister a job to teach art to the tricky little boy of the family. One thing comes the other, and soon the Kim Patriarch (played by Song Kang-ho, one of South Korea’s most celebrated actors) is hired as a driver, while his wife becomes a housekeeper. Their employers don’t have a clue at all, so the Kims must make sure that they never let them know that they are family, otherwise their trick will unravel.
The enormous inequality between the families is most graphically illustrated by their houses, where the most action takes place.
The Kims live in a terribly small, dingy semi-basement, which is in all respects at the bottom of the mountain – they live at the bottom of a hill, the parks at the top.
They are so far in the pecking order that, because they live below the sewer line, their only toilet must be on a high ledge to prevent wastewater from deteriorating.
A single narrow window near the ceiling lets in some daylight into what passes through a living room, but the window is peeded by drunks. Overflowing water and fumigation gas also come straight in. The family fights around the corner from their house where they can get free WiFi.
Almost everything in Parasite seems to be symbolic, and their miserable house “really reflects the psyche of the Kim family,” the director says, adding: “You are still half above ground, so there is the feeling that you still have access to sunlight and you have not completely fallen into the basement. It is this weird mixture of hope and this fear that you can fall lower. “
Such places exist in abundance in Seoul, a busy city of nearly ten million. They are called banjiha and cost around £ 350 a month to rent. Poor and young Koreans trying to get a foothold in the Seoul housing market are their most important residents.
The film has been praised as a spiky class war drama, but Bong maintains that it is really about the polarization of society. Shown: a scene in the film
Often with a bathroom ceiling so low that you can’t stand upright in it, the flats become unbearably moist and moldy in the hot summers of the country, and tend to stink.
Bong, known for his attention to detail, searched the Seoul banjihas for props in front of the messy house of the Kims. His purchases include a refrigerator that is said to be so smelly that it was never opened on the set. The house and the street were built in a gigantic water tank (for reasons that become clear in the film).
Bong’s intensive research also extended to the characters – he had spoken to a script-writing assistant for months interviewing drivers, housekeepers, and teachers in rich areas of Seoul. Pictured: Bong Joon Ho and producer Kwak Sin Ae
Banjihas are a product of the uncomfortable recent history of South Korea. In 1970, the South Korean government, alarmed by the Communist North Korea’s military threat, changed its building codes to ensure that new apartment buildings had basements that could serve as war bunkers.
Although it was initially illegal to rent them as a home, officials were forced to give in during the Seoul housing crisis in the 1980s.
When it comes to the vast, sleek house of the Parks, Bong says damnedly: “They want to show that they have this refined taste.”
Although it is almost empty, their living room is much larger than the house of the Kims. The floor-to-ceiling window looks out onto a perfectly maintained lawn – a contrast to the filthy view of Kims. But the house is sterile – perhaps an indication that everything in it is not quite what it seems.
Bong’s intensive research also extended to the characters – he had spoken to a script-writing assistant for months interviewing drivers, housekeepers, and teachers in rich areas of Seoul. If Parasite is something to do, their experience was not always a pleasure.
The second half of the film is full of plot twists. “It was like draining water into the sink,” says Bong. “In the beginning you hardly notice the water line falling, but towards the end you hear a gurgling sound as everything flows down the drain.” It is an appropriate metaphor for a film whose end is shocking but also moving.
Bong, whose earlier films included the sandy science fiction thriller Snowpiercer (with Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Jamie Bell), never expected Parasite to make a profit because the plot was so “weird” (and it was in Korean) ).
But as he understood his trophies on Sunday, he acknowledged that “rich versus poor” was a universal theme. And they are not much richer than the Hollywood elite who hoarsely screamed for Parasite at the Oscars.