Premise: All unemployed, Ki-taek and his family take peculiar interest in the wealthy and glamorous Parks, as they ingratiate themselves into their lives and get entangled in an unexpected incident.
There’s no other cinematic experience this year quite like Parasite. The latest from Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, The Host), which became the first Korean film to win the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is meant to engage not only all of your senses, but a wider range of emotions; from rage to empathy, from humor to sadness, from exhilaration to longing, and everywhere in-between. The plot is simple on its face, but delightfully complex in its details and character work: it tells the story of a poor Korean family as they slowly but surely con their way into the lives and home of an upper-class family. The film begins with Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), a young dropout who fills in for a friend as an English tutor to Park Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), the high school daughter to Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee) and Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo). In order to boost his credentials, his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) has to Photoshop his college recommendation letter. As they integrate themselves with the Park family, Bong adds more and more layers to each character to make all of them fully realized and nuanced.
The secret weapon of this film, and what makes it such a delight, is its characters. Bong’s script, which he co-wrote with Han Jin Won, tells an incredibly distinguished story of some truly awful people (the Kim family) and makes them sympathetic, while also not reducing the Park family to out-of-touch elitists. Almost every character gets his or her time to shine as they navigate their newfound lifestyles, and each actor (Yeo-jeong Jo and Kang-ho Song in particular are revelations) makes the most out of every minute they’re on screen.
One of the greater unspoken themes of Parasite is how difficult it can be for the disenfranchised to move up in the world. Yet Bong finds incredibly subtle ways of bringing his point home. Just look at the difference in the two families’ living arrangements. The Park family’s mansion is spacious and state of the art – each member of the Kim family marvels at the enclosed yard when they first see it, as if they’ve only known concrete housing their entire lives. By contrast, the Kim family’s home is so cramped that it’s amazing that anyone, let alone a family of 4, can survive in it. Their bathroom in particular is hilariously difficult to navigate. This is some of the best production design I’ve ever seen. One of my film pet peeves is when an inanimate object is described as its own character, but this time it applies: the Park family’s home, where much of the action takes place, reveals more and more of itself as the film moves forward, providing refuge as well as torment for a select few.
Parasite isn’t another “eat the rich” film, a la Todd Phillips’ Joker. No, the 2019 film it closest resembles, both metaphorically and structurally, is Jordan Peele’s Us (once you see both films, you’ll know what I mean). Nor is this a film where the rich gain a deeper understanding for how the other half lives. Bong isn’t interested in tidy, feel-good narratives in which one side emerges better than the other. As our Very Stable Genius President might say, there are very fine people on both sides. (Sorry about that). Rather, the twists and turns that take place over 2 hours and 12 minutes are so shocking and unexpected that I feel slightly guilty giving away the few plot details that I have.
Part thriller, part socioeconomic fable, and part black comedy, the brilliance of Parasite is when it effortlessly – and, more important, believably – changes its tone, sometimes within the same scene. Any given moment could easily elicit laughter or gasps of horror from one person to another, and neither would be wrong in their reactions. I hate to be so vague and evasive, but it should be stated that Parasite is one of the rare films that is truly best experienced when knowing as little as possible before viewing.
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FINAL TAKE: It was all the rock’s fault, right?