South Korean film director Bong Joon-ho is one of the best directors working today. Whether or not Parasite is his masterwork, it comes after nearly two decades of terrific features serving as both challenging commentaries on society, as well as mass adult entertainment. Having made monster movies (The Host), sci-fi films (Snowpiercer, Okja), and crime thrillers (Mother, Memories of Murder), Bong has found a way to tackle genre cinema in some of the most creative of ways for a modern auteur. With Parasite, he dives into a story that would make Hitchcock proud, while still nailing down ideas that are surprising, insightful, tense, and wickedly funny. Coming hot off a ton of buzz, following its Palm d’Or win (by unanimous vote) at the Cannes Film Festival, Parasite is a real gem.
It is also quite fitting this film has come out in a year of movies asking a lot of questions about the separation of social classes, and what happens when the haves are taken down by the have-nots. Jordan Peele’s Us, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and most recently, Joker, among others, are all films presenting unique takes on what it means to see lives upset by the state of the world around them, or those who have sat comfortably at the top. Parasite is a film showing the process and lengths a family will go to get more out of the world they live in by taking what they can when the opportunity presents itself. And it does it all quite effectively thanks to how much fun it is to watch things unfold.
Bong regular Song Kang-ho stars as Kim Ki-taek, the patriarch of a penniless family, scraping by to make minimum wages in a shabby basement apartment. When he, his wife (Jang Hye-jin), and two young adult children (Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam) aren’t folding pizza boxes to earn the little money they can, they are scheming to get into a higher position. This opportunity arrives when the son, Ki-woo, cons his way into getting a job working in the home of a wealthy businessman, Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and his family. With a bit more money coming in, the Kim family sees this as an opportunity to go further than having just one of their clan working for the Parks.
There are far more nefarious elements at play, which I will not get into, but in attempting to summarize the plot of this film, it is important to understand Parasite is on the side of a family of liars who exploit a situation to a maximum degree. The Kim family are, at best, crafty con artists, but calling them villains would be extreme. There are some heinous choices and situations taking place because of their actions, but Parasite does an excellent job of letting the viewer understand what position each family member is in, how they can succeed in their plot, and what the stakes are if something were to go wrong.
The real joy is seeing how Bong twists the knife. If the first third of the film is devoted to having the Kim family attach themselves to the Parks in various ways, new developments arise to create a high level of tension regarding how the Kim’s can hold onto the positions and authority they now have. This includes several surprises I could have, in no way, seen coming. There’s a real craftiness on display in how Bong has decided to reveal new layers to the story. While some of this could be attributed to an inherent understanding of the politics and social structure of South Korea, much of the choices made speak to universal themes, and the power of cinema when you have a filmmaker digging in deep to realize his vision.
To aid in building that unique identity, Bong has afforded himself two great locations speaking well to what represents the two families. As described already, the Kim’s live in a literal basement. The filth of the world around them trickles in through their living room window. It’s the home that would inspire anyone to accelerate their climb up the ladder by any means. In contrast, the Park’s have a fantastic home; a modern work of art by all accounts. It features multiple floors, a large backyard, and a gate to keep out the unwanted. What irony that is.
Fittingly, Bong does everything he can to show all of the different angles of these structures, particularly the home of Mr. Park and his family. Some surprises come with this dwelling, but there’s plenty of joy to take in seeing how the Kim’s manipulate their environment to work it to their advantage, let alone keep various secrets involving their reasonings for being there. From peach fuzz to hiding in obvious locations, there are some real twists and turns to both have the viewer invested in the tricks and traps on display, let alone keep one on the edge of their seat when things seem to be taking a turn for the worse.
The thing to keep in mind is the level of entertainment to be found here. Parasite may operate on a level showing some of the worst of society and the extremes that can be taken to push ahead in a troubled life, but it’s also a very funny film. From the witty script co-written by Bong and Han Jin-won, to some basic physical comedy that becomes all the more hysterical based on the gritty context around it, this is not a film reveling in pretention for the sole purpose of making a statement. Parasite is a cinematic experience with its sights set on making the audience enjoy it while it lasts.
Aiding in the pleasure of watching this film are the pitch-perfect performances from all involved. There is a satirical quality allowing the performances to feel heightened at times, but this does not diminish the strength of the work by the actors. Song Kang-ho is one of the most reliable actors of today just for how committed he can seem in any role thanks to his very expressive face and mannerisms. It’s a talent not every actor has, but there’s something to how he can portray both joy and sadness that works very well for this film. Many plaudits go to the rest of the cast as well, whether it’s in the conniving Kim’s or the unassuming Parks.
Parasite is a film operating spectacularly on all levels. It’s deceptively clever in placing the viewer under its spell, as the story unfolds with some aspects laid out in front to understand clearly, while other pieces come out of nowhere and really grab on. Making this better is how exciting it is to feel for all involved, taking in the level of tension arising from a continually changing status quo, and having plenty of fun with the various subversions on display. Seeing it all reflect on the different layers of society only helps in allowing the film to feel urgent. Time will move on, but the effort Bong put into Parasite will have the lasting effect needed to let the movie stand out as one of 2019’s best features.