It would be hard not to take notice of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”. The film exploded out of this year’s festival circuit starting with its historic Palme d’Or win at Cannes. Now it sits as one of the best reviewed films of 2019 and Academy Award chatter has already begun. How could you miss that much buzz?
It’s exciting to say that “Parasite” deserves the adulation. The South Korean co-screenwriter and director has put together a stinging class warfare satire that has plenty to say about how ugly and callous people from all social statuses can be. With a delicious black comedy edge, some surprising jolts of heartfelt emotion, and a violent throat punch when you’re least expecting it, “Parasite” is a movie that keeps you engaged and guessing.
The film is set in Seoul and follows the Kim family who reside in a cramped street-level apartment/basement at the end of an alley. Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives with his snarky wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), their crafty son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and their artist/top-notch forger daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). Both parents are unemployed and forced to do menial pay-nothing jobs such as folding carry-out pizza boxes just to get by.
A friend convinces Ki-woo to take his place tutoring the teen daughter from the extremely wealthy (and gullible) Park family. It pays well and his family needs the money. As for Ki-woo’s concerns that he’s not qualified, his friend confidently advises him to just fake it. The Parks will never know the difference he says. So Ki-woo cooks up a fake identity, gets some documents forged by his sister, and lands the job with the upper-crusters.
The Park family seem nice enough. The stealthily condescending Mr. Park (Lee Sun Kyun) makes his money as the CEO of a big tech company. His friendly and slightly neurotic wife (a really good Cho Yeo-jeong) stays home tending to their social calendar and minding their disaffected daughter and rambunctious son with the help of their reliable housekeeper (Lee Jung Eun).
They all fall for Ki-woo’s scam but he doesn’t stop there. Upon hearing the Park’s are looking for an art teacher, he recommends Ki-jung who assumes her own fake identity and also gets hired. Soon every member of the Kim clan has conned their way into employment by the Parks while keeping their family ties secret. For a while everyone seems happy, the Parks and their oblivious blue-blooded living, and the Kims who are making good money leeching off their employers.
The script from Bong and his co-writer Han Jin-won weaves a fascinating web. The first half plays out like dual family dramas bound together by threads of sharp dark humor. But the moment you think you’ve figured it out, Bong has you exactly where he wants you. The wildly unpredictable second half broadsides us with one twist after another, spinning the story into a darker and unabashedly violent direction. There are moments where you would swear it was all about to fall apart. But Bong has an impeccable control of his material and amazingly keeps it together with the craftsmanship of a true auteur.
Bong is no stranger to dealing with the issue of class. Each of his previous two films “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” addressed it in their own ways. “Parasite” does a great job of rousing our senses to the subject without burying us in it. There are a couple of instances where the dialogue is too pointed, but overall the movie speaks to more than just a single topic. And it doesn’t treat things solely as black or white. You could say the entire movie plays out in the ugly gray areas in between right and wrong, guilty and innocent, heroes and villains.
By the end of it all we find ourselves asking who are the real parasites? Is it the Kims and their shameless willingness to connive and deceive for their piece of the proverbial pie? Is it the Parks and their snobbish expectation of being served by the lower class? Maybe the movie is making the case that we’re all parasites. Maybe we all are out for ourselves and willing to exploit anyone to get ahead. And as the film’s brilliant yet bleak final act shows, those attitudes have some pretty nasty consequences.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS