Funny, disturbing, and heartbreaking all at once, Parasite finds Joon-ho in top form as a storyteller, delivering a film like no other this year.
Parasite is not only one of the best movies of 2019, it's a film that (as you might've heard by now) is better experienced going in knowing as little as possible. A Palme d'Or winner from South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho of The Host, Snowpiercer, and Okja fame (among others), Parasite is a daringly original work that defies being boxed into a single genre, combining dark social satire with more than a touch of horror, a thriller, and tragedy all in one. It's also a narrative that continuously, yet precisely, transforms from one movie into another, providing an experience that's as purely entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Funny, disturbing, and heartbreaking all at once, Parasite finds Joon-ho in top form as a storyteller, delivering a film like no other this year.
The movie takes place in South Korea, where the members of the Kim family - Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) - live in a basement apartment and struggle to get by working low-paying temporary gigs. On the recommendation of a friend, Ki-woo is able to secure employment as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family's daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), and manages to con the gullible Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) into hiring Ki-jeong as an art therapist for her young son (telling her she's a "professional" he knows). One by one, the other members of the Kim family also find ways to trick Mrs. and Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) into hiring them... but will their scheme succeed in the long-run?
As twisty (and twisted) as Parasite is, its plot beats are ultimately all in service of Joon-ho's larger critique of the failings of modern capitalism, classism, and the disparities between the haves and have-nots (and not just their economic differences, either). But similar to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, which Joon-ho has acknowledged as an important inspiration for the film, Parasite seamlessly integrates its sociopolitical commentary into a captivating story that only grows more layered upon reflection and closer inspection. And just like The Master of Suspense, Joon-ho exercises a mastery of his own craftsmanship here, as he and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo shoot the action in measured and often extended takes that are meticulously constructed in the way they use blocking to express information. The juxtaposition of the Kim family's cramped, shabby home versus the spaciousness of the Park's estate (both in and outside) alone gets Joon-ho's point across as much as his clever dialogue does.
The cast is equally important to Parasite's success, of course, and just about everyone is pitch-perfect in their respective roles. Kang-ho has collaborated with Joon-ho a number of times in the past and his performance as the Kims' patriarch (a lifelong driver who knows the game is rigged, but plays it as best he can all the same) shifts from darkly funny to dramatic and sad as carefully as Joon-ho's direction. So-dam is similarly great as Ki-jeong in the way her character takes to playing her role almost unsettlingly well, as is Yeo-jeong as the wonderfully clueless Mr. Park and Sun-kyun as her husband, who fancies himself as being much smarter and far more capable that he truly is. However, part of what makes Parasite great is that the Kims aren't presented as scrappy heroes, nor are the Parks painted as black-and-white villains. Instead, they're portrayed as flawed, yet deeply human beings who're either trying to survive in a harsh world or so privileged that they're painfully oblivious to the suffering of others.
By doing this, Joon-ho keeps the finger of blame pointed firmly towards the systematic failings responsible for putting the Kims in the position they're in, rather than any single person or even a group of people. This allows Parasite to excel as both a condemnation of global capitalism (even touching on how U.S. culture has impacted South Korea, in this regard) and a genre-blending movie full of imperfect, yet compelling characters, in some of the same ways as this year's Hustlers did. Even then, it's difficult to compare Parasite to any other recent films that are enjoyable to watch, yet also carry a deeper political message, in light of its unconventional and often shocking narrative. But again, to say more on that would ruin the surprise.
As the film continues to expand to more and more theaters domestically in the weeks ahead, it will be interesting to see how Parasite fares from here. It's absolutely worth checking out on the big screen, but will have to overcome the same hurdles as all non-english language, non-U.S. movies do along the way. And admittedly, like the majority of Joon-ho's work, Parasite might simply be too bizarre to catch on with a larger audience, despite its widespread acclaim and accolades. Still, it bears repeating: in a time of year when arthouse films and wannabe awards contenders can start to blur together, this is one that will definitely stick with you.
Parasite is now playing in a semi-wide U.S. theatrical release. It is 132 minutes long and is rated R for language, some violence and sexual content.