“Eat the rich” has become a popular genre this past year, but there hasn’t been a film quite like Parasite.
Filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s latest film has been a sensation since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May. Critics adore it, audiences have sold out theaters, and awards bodies have lavished it with accolades. After watching it myself, it’s easy to understand why it is considered a serious, history-making contender for the Best Picture Oscar. Parasite is an astonishing work of remarkable depth that excitingly defies straightforward definition.
If I were to attempt to affix a label to Parasite, pitch-black comedy works the best. The film tells the story of the Kims, a South Korean family of four living on the edge of poverty, to the point that they have to assemble boxes for a nearby pizza shop just to make due with their semi-basement apartment. The break they are in desperate need of comes in the form of a friend of son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik): he convinces Ki-woo to pose as a college student and serve as an English tutor to the daughter of the wealthy Park family. Ki-woo easily wins over the Parks, and decides to get his family in on the lucrative action. One by one, the family schemes and scams their way into the oblivious Park household: daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) poses as an in-demand art teacher for the youngest son, father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) becomes the family chauffeur, and mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-Jin) replaces the Park’s long-serving housekeeper by convincing them she’s sick with tuberculosis. The Kims celebrate their successful infiltration by getting drunk while the family’s away on a camping vacation, but their revelry is interrupted by a spot of thunder and a surprise guest.
It’s at that moment Parasite completely switches gears, metamorphosing into a high-octane thriller, then into a hilarious comedy of errors, before finally settling on stunning nihilist tragedy. It’s a complicated juggling act for even the most experienced of directors. For Joon-ho, famous for films like the vastly underrated Snowpiercer, it’s old hat. He has mastered the complicated multi-layered narrative, and Parasite represents him at the height of his powers as he weaves this tale of uncontrolled avarice and greed with swaggering confidence. He’s in complete command of every element, from the excellent pacing down to the individual shots, each crackling with whatever mood Joon-ho is projecting at any given time. Even as the film shifts mood and genre, it never looses grip of its underpinning humor, no matter how dark it gets. It is filled to the top with twists and sharp-left turns that will leave your head spinning, but you never once doubt that Joon-ho has lost control. Even its ending – an affecting dose of optimism – feels thoroughly earned.
Parasite works so well because Joon-ho firmly grounds every choice he makes in his insightful, startlingly profound assessment of class dynamics. Telling a story about a rich dumb people that practically deserves to be taken advantage of isn’t difficult – both Hustlers and Knives Out did it excellently this past seasons. Joon-ho takes it several steps forward with the empathy and judgment he shows both families. As fun as it is watching the ease in which the Kims worm their way into the Parks’ lives, there is no question that it is an infestation rather than a righteous crusade. The Parks’ wealth shield them from compassion or thoughtfulness, but they are relatively harmless, and don’t deserve the audaciously funny schemes happening under their privileged noses. Again, a lesser director would fashion the Kims as the villains of this story, but Joon-ho understands that poverty doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Through the Kims, Joon-ho explores the nuances in ways that are both specific to Korean culture and, sadly, universal. The greatest contribution Parasite makes to the classism conversation is the mental health toll that poverty takes. The Kims don’t just deal with the physical realities of being poor; they are also confronted with outside perceptions of their value, financial and personal. The Parks casually ridicule their new staff without even realizing it, and Joon-ho shows us how those words cause real harm, particularly through Ki-taek. Joon-ho captures every blow to Ki-taek’s self-esteem and confidence, cleverly leaving a pathway to the film’s explosive finale that makes it all feel inevitable.
Song Kang-ho is excellent in bringing the tragedy of Ki-taek to life. Just like his director, Kang-ho has to strike a delicate, critical balance for Parasite to work, teetering between light and dark, and he does with brilliant care. He keeps hold of the decency and humility at his character’s core, even when his actions go tragically off the rails. With every micro-change in his expression at one of the Parks’ digs, he makes you sympathize with his humiliation, and even when you can’t condone what he does, you understand the internal forces driving them. As superlative as Kang-ho is (and deserving of Oscar recognition in his own right), the entire cast thrives under Joon-ho’s direction, conveying the nuances that prevent their characters from devolving into caricature.
Parasite is a film that takes root in your mind long after it ends. It offers social commentary that is thought-provoking in ways that other filmmakers insists theirs are, but don’t quite clear the bar. Bong Joon-ho does though, while also blending levity, anxiety, nihilism, and optimism in a profoundly moving piece of art. Parasite is one of the year’s very best, and it would be a sever indictment of the Academy if it weren’t sufficiently feted at the Oscars. This is a film that demands rapturous attention, and actually deserves it.