Parasite ★★★★★

Parasite is that rare near-perfect film that does something that even some of the very best films can’t do. It commands your attention completely without letting go for even a second. I know this to be true without a doubt because Parasite opened in New York at a single theater, and every showtime on the Saturday of opening weekend was completely sold out save for the earliest showing at 9:55 a.m. (which was nearly sold out). I made my way to IFC Center, near Washington Square Park after a night of spotty sleep. I tried to fall asleep on the way to the theater, but my chatty Uber driver wouldn’t let it be so. You see, I’ve dozed off on my fair share of films (see my High Life review for a wild theater napping story), and if I’m tired I‘m liable to take a quick nap during even an objectively good film. But director Bong Joon Ho has created something so utterly captivating, that nothing, not tiredness, not reading subtitles, could take me out of the film.

The first act follows the poor Kim family living in a rundown basement flat doing whatever menial work they can get to survive. They have maintained their wit despite their circumstances, and the young-adult children are clearly quite bright. Through the kindness of his friend, and the graphic design skills of his sister, the son of the family, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) gets a job teaching English to the rich Park family’s daughter. From here on the film is a study of two families inhabiting the same space, but coming from distinct realities.

This first act is quite hilarious as Ki-Woo eventually gets his sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park), who he pretends is a friend of friend, a job in the Park home as an art teacher for their son. She craftily spins that job into and art therapy position demanding more money by preying on her student’s mother’s belief that he’s the next Basquiat. The mother of the Park household is brilliantly played with a frivolous lovability by Yeong-jeong Jo. She’s the embodiment of empty riches, all style and only feigned substance. The Kim daughter ever-so-craftily gets their father (the Korean film star Kang-ho Song) a job as the Park’s family driver, and in an ever escalating fashion they all get the longtime maid fired and replace her with their own mother (Hye-jin Jang).

And it’s just when you think you’ve picked up on the rhythm of he film and why it’s been so lauded by critics, that everything escalates. Bong Joon Ho’s films are no stranger to absurdity. His recent English-language films Snowpiercer and Okja are set in absurd versions of the not-too-distant future, worlds that shock us. What’s particularly remarkable about Parasite is that it is because it’s grounded in the reality we know that the absurdity is more jaw dropping.

A film that was a farce remains one, with the flailing machinations of a Molière play, but suddenly it’s also a film with something to say. Not only is it a comparison of two families from distinct figurative worlds, but about how each of them survives in the world they have to inhabit together. Yes, the poorer family has latched on to the richer family to benefit from the fortune that family has amassed. That’s not commendable, but the poorer family is smarter and more resourceful (until they’re not) than the Parks. It’s a story about survival and about how nothing really changes. People generally remain in the same station, and if there is a change it’s only a role reversal. The things that are true about the world, how it works, and who it favors remain the same.

One of the downfalls of Okja is that the film is so enraptured with what it‘s trying to say that the plot and message get lost as they intertwine to create that film’s narrative. Bong Joon Ho succeeds in the way he did with Snowpiercer — having a clear message, while also creating an engaging story connected to that message. So often films pick and choose between having an engaging plot and having something deeper to say. Ho refuses to choose and instead gives us both, and it works marvelously.