Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-ho, Park-So-dam, Cho Yeo-jeong, Chang Hyae-jin
Given director Bong Joon-ho’s relative success over the last 10-plus years it’s pretty astounding it’s taken me this long to finally see one of his movies and well “Parasite” is a hell of a first impression.
Though I can’t speak on the quality of his dystopian sci-fi hit “Snowpiercer” or, more surprisingly as a monster movie fan, his giant tadpole thriller “The Host,” “Parasite” is a powerful look at class warfare and social and economic inequality that translates well beyond Korean society.
But more than it’s social messaging “Parasite” is a supremely well-directed film; a dark comedy with a distinct rhythm that will have you humming along all the way to its shocking finish.
“Parasite” tells the story of Kim Ki-woo and his poor family living in the slums. They make ends meet by assembling pizza boxes for a living and taking odd jobs when necessary. One day, chance arrives in the form of Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk who is tutoring a rich family’s daughter in English. Min-hyuk asks him to take his place while he studies abroad, forging papers to appear as an authentic English tutor. When Ki-woo begins to see how easy it is to fool the rich family into giving him a job he begins to scheming to have the rest of his family join him to milk the rich household as much as they can.
Watching “Parasite” may be akin to viewing a beautiful yet haunting painting. Each scene feels exquisitely framed and there’s a visual voyeurism to each scene that’s creepy, like that of a horror film. You almost wonder if the rich Park family house were going to have real ghosts at some point but instead the terror is much more contextual.
(Being wealthy is hard, man…)
Each scene has a distinct rhythm with well thought out setups and payoffs revolving around the Kim family’s planning and later on the chaos that ensues when it all goes to hell. The film keeps the viewer hooked to its brisk pace from start to finish with effective editing, cinematography, and a dark sense of humor.
The movie will have you laughing about as often as it’ll have you gasping by its end and though its story is self-contained in its setting it nonetheless it executes it all with big ideas and wit that will keep you glued throughout its two-hour runtime.
(I’ll let smarter writers than myself break this down more in depth. WARNING SPOILERS.)
It’s Bong’s superb cast that truly gels all these unique stylings together to create an effective story of class strife.
Song Kang-ho is dark-humored and aloof as the Kim family patriarch counter to the Park’s Lee Sun-kyun who plays a distant father who looks stay above the riff-raff of those below him. Park So-dam who plays Ki-jeong (aka Jessica) is dry and deadpanned in her delivery almost like a Korean Aubrey Plaza and steals each scene she’s in. Cho Yeo-jeong is great as the well-meaning matriarch of the Park family who nags and pesters her children and gets easily hoodwinked by the Kim family con.
Choi Woo-shik’s Kim Kee-woo (aka Kevin) is the beating heart of the film though representing the story’s complex, nuanced sense of morality. Kee-woo’s outlook on the world and society around him fluctuates with new information as his con eventually unravels and Choi gives the character a very human touch that goes beyond simply portraying him as an aggrieved poor person. Rather Choi shows the complex realities faced by people who eventually do wrong to horrible things to survive.
Movies of this ilk though tend to paint the two sides of social and economic inequality in binary terms. The rich are dastardly, unloving, mustache twirlers and the poor are kind-hearted, selfless, salt of the earth types. Like these characters the real world is a lot more nuanced and “Parasite” sets out to make this pretty clear with its theme immediately.
(You hear that, James??)
The rich Park family, though they don’t think highly of those quite literally below them, they are still a loving bunch who looking out for the best interests of their children while the Kim’s are con artists who are fine with manipulating them to gain a few extra dollars in their miserable lives. But Bong doesn’t want the viewer to think too much of their personalities; he wants viewers to see the forest not the trees.
People resort to desperate sometimes criminal measures when living in extreme poverty. We all need to survive somehow and when things are truly terrible we do all that is necessary to keep our heads above water. The Kims, though manipulative for sure, are not malicious; they’re desperate which is consistently apparent each time the film reverts back to their slum apartment located in the back alleys where drunks routinely piss themselves in front of their window. The movie doesn’t set out to condone the actions of the Kims but rather show us what happens in a society that neglects its worst off.
We’re all taught at a young age that becoming rich and/or famous is an attainable goal but with the world consistently resetting the starting line further and further back, “keeping up with the Jones” becomes a more and more unattainable goal. Short of a revolution, not much is going to change without systemic change up top and the film’s conclusion makes it hauntingly clear.
Those at the top want us fighting amongst ourselves for scraps because it takes the attention off the fact they are hoarding everything else. If we don’t stand together in class solidarity then we will continue to destroy each other instead of the system that vastly favors the wealthy.
“Parasite” is a supremely well designed and thoughtful film that tackles class solidarity, poverty, and strife in a creative way that has you laughing at its often dry and dark sense of humor while transfixed by its narrative and poignant theme.
Whether you’ve seen Bong’s other films or not, “Parasite” firmly establishes this director as one to watch going into the new decade and beyond as his craftsmanship, attention to detail, and enthralling sense of storytelling is clearly among the best.
May we all be able to see the world through the same nuanced and complex lens as Bong as well going into 2020 and beyond.
5 out of 5
In George Lucas voice It’s like poetry. It rhymes.