The (well-deserved) high profile of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite spotlights an archetype of Korean popular cinema that didn’t originate with the writer-director – the struggling, eccentric, squabbling fringe criminal family existing in the margins of society and preying on the more economically secure like a petty crook version of the downhome killer clans of American horror movies. Parasite wasn’t even Bong’s first go-round with these sorts of characters – a similar clan features in his monster movie The Host. Well before that, Kim Jee-woon’s The Quiet Family – inspiration for Takashi Miike’s happy Katakuris – were in the same business, and you can find other black comic clans across Asia.
Lee Min-jae’s film, which seemingly has two English titles to suit the comedy and the horror markets, has the zombie survivor of an unethical experiment (Jung Ga-ram) claw his way out of a buried metal canister and stumble into a failing gas station run by the shambolic Park family. Abusive, selfish patriarch Man-deok (Park In-hwan) is the sort of feckless chancer who’d steal his pregnant daughter-in-law’s savings and run off to Hawaii … mechanic Joon-gul (Jeong Jae-yeong) drums up business by laying down caltrops on a lonely road and overcharging city-dwellers for repairs (cash only) … just-fired salaryman Min-gul (Kim Nam-gil), who may have a suit but is just as unethical and eager to exploit the monster for profit … Nam-joo (Uhm Ji-won), shrill and stern and saving up to give her baby a better life … and teenage waif Hae-gul (Lee Soo-kyung), who names the mute creature Jjong-bi and wonders if he’s boyfriend material (with make-up and a haircut, the zombie has teen idol looks) but also strides into action with a lawn-strimmer.
Man-deok is bitten by the zombie, and rather than turn into a shambling ghoul (those come later) is rejuvenated. The Parks charge the old gits of the locality to get bitten and become young and perhaps unkillable – only the more familiar side effects of zombie infection soon set in, and the garage is besieged by slavering creatures. It’s farcical, but with a melancholy edge. The horror stems from get-rich-quick schemes, with the larger crimes of the unethical medical corporation dwarfing the scams of the Parks – and eventually long-suppressed family loyalties forcing venal folks into doing something more like the right thing. There’s even a sweet streak in Hae-gul’s feelings for Jjong-bi, with Jung miming subtly between the gross-out gags and far more extreme and farcical performances of the actors playing fully human characters.