Here’s something I probably shouldn’t do: suggest you seek out some of the really great film writing on Bong Joon-Ho’s newest film, Parasite, elsewhere on the internet. There’s a lot of it out there, given what a phenomenon the film is; the filmmaker behind bold original creations like Okja, Mother and The Host delivers a searing social commentary that masterfully entertains while it dismantles every expectation one could possibly have regarding where the narrative may go. As one might imagine, such a movie has sparked interesting, intriguing discussions across the ideological and political spectrum.
While you’re here, though, allow me to contribute to the conversation with my own take on just what an essential new film Parasite is, a smart, sharp send-up of classism, consumerism and more that American audiences (even the ones who don’t typically check out foreign fare) should flock to.
The movie centers around two families, the Kims and the Parks, who couldn’t be more different from each other. The Kims are a nuclear family of father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mother Chung-sook (Hyae Jin Chang) and children Ki-Woo (Woo-sik Choi) and Ki-jung (So-dam Park), both young adults. The family lives in a basement apartment in a cramped, urban part of town, each member of the family earning money however they can manage in order to make ends meet (including pre-folding pizza boxes for a local shop that won’t pay for sloppy work).
At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum are the Parks, homemaker wife Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), business magnate Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee) and their children, high-school age Da-hye (Jung Ziso) and grade-schooler Da-Song (Hyun-jun Jung). They live in a big house sequestered on a hill, only accessible behind security gates and cameras installed to keep the riffraff away. With their LandRover in the garage and a perfectly manicured, vibrantly green backyard, they employ Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee) as housekeeper, chef and personal assistant to keep their household running smoothly.
The two families might never have reason to cross paths, except that a friend of Ki-Woo tips him off to a potential job opening at the mansion: they’re looking for a tutor for their daughter, and soon Ki-Woo has the job. In short order (and none of this is a spoiler, as it all unfolds within the first portion of the film), he’s sorted it so that the entire Kim family, in one capacity or another, work for the Parks. While Ki-jung hilariously fakes her way into a job as an art therapist for rambunctious but promising Da-Song, the ways the others find themselves in the Parks’ employ are too clever to reveal here.
There’s a bit of a trend in films of this season, that of a shift in the narrative about halfway through as it becomes clear that where we started is not at all where we’re going to end up. Far from being disruptive, this approach (when done well) actually makes for an impressively robust experience, and Parasite is no exception. Just as the Kims find themselves ostensibly set for life with their new, cushy jobs, everything turns on its head when a shocking discovery is made within the Park home. What follows is where the filmmaker really has his fun, letting worlds collide to a degree that only an artist at a particular moment in his career could get away with. Bong Joon-Ho knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s having a ball doing it.
In a film with a cast as large as this one, any weak link could set the whole thing off on the wrong note; thankfully, Parasite boasts one of the most pitch-perfect ensembles of recent memory. The actors seem to tap into each other’s energy, creating performances that are as uniquely drawn as they are complementary to each other. Jeong-eun Lee in particular takes her character’s arc to splendid heights of wit and intensity in a role pivotal to the film’s eventual resolution. And it’s a resolution that surely won’t work for everyone; Bong has set our expectations high, and he certainly raises the stakes of the final act of the film to meet them. By the time all is said and done, you’ll likely have to pick your jaw up off the floor just to leave the theater. It’s shock and awe in spades, and it’s wonderful.
Parasite has a steep—but not impossible—road ahead to reach a general American audience and, perhaps even more importantly, garner the awards recognition it deserves. It is South Korea’s submission to the International Feature Oscar race, though it certainly warrants attention in categories beyond that. One can only hope that all the buzz around this remarkable, intelligent film ensures as many people as possible get to see it.
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