The best line I’ve ever heard during a Hollywood awards ceremony acceptance speech is when South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho won the award for Best Foreign-Language Film at the 2020 Golden Globes for his 2019 masterpiece, “Parasite.”
“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said. There is no doubt that “Parasite” is an amazing film, winning dozens of prestigious awards in the past year, topped off by becoming the first total foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
After just a few minutes, reading the subtitles becomes such a minor part of enjoying this film because Bong’s gorgeous direction heightened by the actors’ performances deliver the cutting commentary and important themes far better than the dialogue along the bottom of the screen.
It’s both refreshing and inspiring to know that a movie can be so effective in its storytelling through smart visuals and strong character development without relying on the spoken word. If ever there was a foreign-language film to break that barrier, this is it.
The Kim family may be rich in street smarts but they struggle to make ends meet living in a semi-basement apartment and jobless. However, fortunes change when their college-aged son is hired to be the new English tutor to the daughter of the Parks, the poster family of aspirational wealth.
Sensing a golden opportunity, the Kims quickly install themselves into the Parks’ everyday lives with their daughter becoming the Parks’ son’s art therapist, the father becoming their chauffeur and the mother becoming their maid, all without the Parks knowing the Kims are related.
Soon, the Kims are providing luxury services while the Parks obliviously bankroll their entire household to this poor family. But when a parasitic interloper arrives one night when the Parks are out of town, the Kims realize their newfound comfort could disappear in no time.
Not only one of the smartest movies of 2019, “Parasite” is surprisingly one of the funniest, with many translations of the dialogue-driven jokes still working because of the actors’ comedic timing. There are plenty of running jokes showing the differences and similarities between these two families and their lots in life, such as how unimportant credentials and documents mean when it comes to their jobs, but how great physical items are because they came from America.
One of Bong’s most important visual reminders of class and status throughout the film is the ascending and descending levels the families live on. First, you have the Kims climbing from their poor neighborhood up a hill that seems to go on forever until they get to the Parks’ house, but then having to go back down that hill when a heavy rainstorm hits. From atop the hill the rainstorm is beautiful to the Parks, but at the bottom, the cascading flood is life-changing for the Kims.
The humor also works its way into how the families are smart — or dumb — about different things you wouldn’t expect. It seems hard to believe the Parks would not catch on that the Kims are actually one family using false names, but the movie makes it perfectly clear that the Parks only see what they want to see, and they don’t see them as poor people from the bottom of the city.
About halfway through the film, a switch in the narrative happens that turns this movie from a comedy about con artists into quite a dark thriller. Bong has said that it’s best to go into the film blind, so I won’t go into more detail, but the choices both the Kims and Parks make after that point left me on edge as the tension continued to build through the final hour.
Because when it comes to differences in class and social status and how big the gap between the poor and rich is, neither the Parks nor the Kims are really the villains of this story — the systems they find themselves in. Bong’s brilliance behind the camera and in the screenplay shows these families as people all of us know, for better or worse, and that personal connection makes that one-inch subtitle wall quite easy to topple.