Spoiler alert: If you have not seen “Parasite,” be forewarned that this essay discusses key plot details from the movie, including the ending.
Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” made Oscar history on Monday morning by becoming the first Korean movie to score nominations not only for international feature but also for best picture, director and original screenplay. But amid these well-earned, long-overdue milestones, the movie, or rather the motion picture academy, fell short in at least one crucial department: None of the movie’s outstanding actors — including Chang Hyae Jin, Cho Yeo Jeong, Choi Woo Shik, Lee Jung Eun, Lee Sun Kyun, Park So Dam and Song Kang Ho — received an acting nomination.
I can sense your objections already. It was an insanely competitive field, after all, and two other best picture nominees (“1917” and “Ford v Ferrari”) also failed to secure acting nominations. Some might argue that in the midst of its vigorous campaign to capture a directing nomination for Bong, the movie’s distributor, Neon, could have given the actors a bigger push. But the deck was always stacked against “Parasite’s” cast. Few of its actors are well known in the U.S., and the motion picture academy has a dreadful track record of recognizing Asian actors to begin with.
Some might argue that the seamlessness and coherence of the “Parasite” ensemble may actually have worked against it, keeping any single actor from standing out. To me, that argument is not just false on its face but ugly in its insinuations: It comes close to perpetuating a hoary canard about Asian actors and Asian people in general, which is that they’re indistinguishable and interchangeable.
As the New York Magazine/Vulture writer E. Alex Jung recently noted, “There’s an old prejudice at work here that sees Asian people as technical workers — hence the praise for Bong Joon Ho — and refuses to see us as fully human.” The oversight feels especially glaring if you come away from “Parasite” convinced, as I was, that it features some of the best individual performances — and the single most dazzling, nuanced and sustained feat of collaborative acting — in any movie last year.
Some organizations, to their credit, have recognized this. The cast earned a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best ensemble — the first time a non-English-language movie has pulled off that feat in the 21 years since “Life Is Beautiful.” Song won best supporting actor for his performance as the film’s working-class patriarch from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and other organizations. And I’m convinced that the actors’ presence on the awards-season circuit has made some small, incremental progress: They’ve done their part to chip away at the industry’s blinkered perceptions of what great acting looks like and where it can come from.
But to discuss “Parasite” purely in terms of representation is to risk diminishing the singularity of its achievement. If you already know how the movie ends — and if you don’t, you should read no further — you know why it’s so heartening to see the actors posing alongside Bong at a press photo call or an industry Q&A. Speaking as someone who hasn’t yet recovered emotionally from the movie, the sight of these actors’ faces beaming from a magazine cover still inspires a simple, even primal reaction: relief.
I mean, look at them, they’re all alive! And happy and healthy! They didn’t really bludgeon each other, kick each other down stairs, assault each other with food-borne allergens or stab each other with barbecue skewers! See how stylish they look, how harmoniously they coexist, how pleased they are to be in one another’s company — in stark contrast to the tale of poverty and duplicity and horror that brought them all together in the first place.
Nearly every great performance is a well-executed con. ... Allowing yourself to be defrauded is part of the fun.
A quick recap may be in order. The movie tells the story of the impoverished Kim family — a bumbling father, Ki-taek (Song); a shrewd mother, Chung-sook (Chang); a wily daughter, Ki-jung (Park So Dam); and an ambitious son, Ki-woo (Choi). Through some ingenious trickery, the Kims manage to install themselves as employees in the household of the wealthy Park family, who hold up an eerie mirror image to the Kims: a tech-titan father, Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun); his trophy wife, Yeon-kyo (Cho); their neglected teenage daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji So); and their overindulged younger son, Da-song (Jung Hyun Jun).
Nearly every great performance is a well-executed con, an elaborate scheme skillfully foisted on the audience. That’s surely one reason why the “Parasite” actors have connected so forcefully with critics and audiences around the world, even those who may emerge from the theater remembering individual faces better than names. As in every elaborate house-of-games thriller, the actors playing the grifters and the griftees alike are all in professional cahoots, merrily engaged in their own deeper charade. Allowing yourself to be defrauded — or, if you prefer, suspending your disbelief — is part of the fun.
As an allegory of social inequality and class rage, “Parasite” both amplifies and complicates these pleasures. Bong and his actors manipulate our sympathies with ruthless precision. They resist the temptation to cast either the Kims or the Parks in terms of easy heroism or villainy, even as they gleefully upend our inclination to side with the poor against the rich. When the movie springs a trapdoor under our feet — revealing that the Parks’ housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung Eun), has been hiding her husband (Park Myung Hoon) in the house’s underground bunker — it completely resets our understanding of what those designations even mean. The poor will always be rich, after all, relative to those who are even less fortunate.
All this is testament to Bong’s directorial acumen, which has been duly acknowledged by awards voters. But that acumen cannot be measured strictly in terms of ingenious plotting and virtuoso camerawork; it hinges on the greatness of his actors. They are the reason that “Parasite,” for all the clockwork precision of its plotting, never feels like a mechanical construct or a lifeless genre exercise. They are the warm blood racing through this movie’s finely crafted veins.
The best-known cast member is Song, an extraordinarily versatile performer and a major star in South Korea. His character, Ki-taek, is a vintage Song creation: a rumpled Everyman who loves his family but is never as sharp, responsible or considerate as he could be. Ki-taek has an obvious kinship with the father Song played in Bong’s 2006 monster movie, “The Host,” another hapless clown who, in trying to protect his family, achieves a furious moral stature by movie’s end.
But while Song is unambiguously heroic in “The Host,” in “Parasite” he shows us how an ordinary family man can become a killer, an avenger of the underclass. While some have expressed skepticism about his metamorphosis and the movie’s climactic descent into madness, I think the groundwork is amply laid by a few scenes in which Ki-taek interacts with his rich employers. When the Parks recoil from his “old radish” body odor, Ki-taek’s jovial countenance suddenly darkens, and in Song’s silent glare we see a deeply wounded fury that has, perhaps, been bubbling away all along. He shows us what it feels like to be regarded as not just inferior but subhuman.
A more conventional version of “Parasite” might have positioned Song as the antihero and turned his horrific transformation into the story’s entire dramatic fulcrum. But Bong’s sensibility is relentlessly egalitarian. It could be argued that the two Kim men, Ki-taek and Ki-woo, are effectively the movie’s co-leads, as reinforced by the story’s wrenching father-son coda. But that only makes it all the more surprising and gratifying that the women of “Parasite” are the ones who leave the strongest impression.
First among equals, for me, is Cho, whose Yeon-kyo exudes a lofty, even militaristic sense of entitlement one minute — watch her instruct her housekeeper on how to arrange party tables in a “crane formation” — but can descend into shock and panic at the mildest provocation. As portraits of the idle rich go, she’s somehow both the movie’s most damnable and redeemable figure, sympathetic even (or especially) at her moments of utter cluelessness. And Cho is nothing short of superb; breezily chattering away and stroking her pet dog, she etches a supremely intelligent portrait of a woman living in a state of carefully nurtured ignorance.
Her performance works in concert with those of the other actresses to excavate one of “Parasite’s” less remarked-upon themes. If this is a story of class conflict, it is no less a movie about gender warfare, and one of Bong’s sharpest observations is that the higher up the class spectrum you go, the more rigid the patriarchy’s grip. That’s why Yeon-kyo lives in utter terror of her husband, while in the Kim household, by contrast, gender parity prevails. If anything, the Kim women, Chung-sook and Ki-jung, easily best their male counterparts for sheer smarts and killer instincts.
In casting Chang and Park So Dam, respectively, Bong seems to have sought out two distinctly different actresses with the same edge of steel. One sign of the filmmaker’s mastery is his economy, the way he allows his actors to convey character details without exposition. Park’s cool, unflappable authority is all we need to grasp that Ki-jung is the most intuitively gifted con artist in a family full of them; we don’t know exactly how she tames the wild young Da-song into submission, and we don’t need to. Chung-sook, for her part, is the last of the Kims to infiltrate the Parks’ household, but in Chang’s shrewd, sardonic performance, we see that she is also the first one to suspect the full gravity and terror of what’s at stake.
And the strongest, most capable, most resilient woman in “Parasite”? She is almost certainly Moon-gwang, the housekeeper who at first seems to be little more than a tiresome busybody, a bit too eager to assert her authority over her domain — until you realize, in Lee Jung Eun’s brutal physical and emotional meltdown, that her meddling stems not from ego but desperation. In her wrenching performance — and also that of Park Myung Hoon as her husband, who for spoiler-related reasons has been the most undersung member of the cast — “Parasite” peels back its pristine surfaces to show us what it truly means to be one of the wretched of the earth. It isn’t a pretty picture. Just the best one.