Parasite ★★★★★

"Damn you, Parasite," I feel like grumbling. "Why did you have to go and win all those Oscars? Thanks to you, we no longer have the right to complain about the Academy." But I assume this is just what happens when a film comes out that is so good it has the power to bring decades-old reservations crashing down in ruin, possibly never to be rebuilt. Who can say? It's never happened before.

Bong Joon-ho remains a director in whose work I'm ill-versed. Between this and Okja, what's clear to me is that he likes to take social issues that plague modern society, be they out-of-control farming or widening economic disparities, and give them his own spin, with the result that they always feel like something more than just satire. To describe his approach as a tonal high-wire act, particularly in the case of Parasite, is too simple; it downplays the extent to which the viewer's experience of the film is in-the-moment, ever-changing and relentlessly unpredictable, not only in terms of the feel of the film but in terms of the direction of its story. I walked out of Parasite dazzled by the lack of resemblance between the film I'd just left and the one I'd gone into.

The film, set in modern-day Seoul, opens by introducing us to the Kims: father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, son Ki-woo and daughter Ki-jung. They live in a cluttered basement flat in a run-down neighbourhood. In the first scene they're searching their home for Wi-Fi connection, and the first thing they do when they've found it is check WhatsApp for local job opportunities (folding pizza boxes, for instance) - invariably for zero-hour pay, we're given to believe. When their street is fumigated, they open their windows so as to get free pest control. Then, one evening, a friend of Ki-woo's drops by and tells him that he wants Ki-woo to take over his job tutoring English to the teenage daughter of a wealthy family. Even though he lacks the necessary qualifications, Ki-woo knows better than to turn down such a tempting offer; Ki-jung fakes a college degree, and he's all set.

The Parks, Ki-woo's new employers, live isolated on a hill, in a palatial modern property that happened to remind me of Mon Oncle. Like the Kims, they're a unit comprising two parents, a son and a daughter. They also have a housekeeper and a chauffeur. The mother, Yeon-gyo, indulges her children no end; the father, Dong-ik, is suave and seemingly more shrewd than his wife, but quickly proves himself equally snobbish. Faced with the airheaded Yeon-gyo, Ki-woo has no difficulty bluffing his way into the position of tutor. He gathers from Yeon-gyo's wittering that her hyperactive son Da-song is in need of an art therapist. Enter Ki-jung, posing as "Jessica" (Ki-woo has been assigned the English name "Kevin" by Yeon-gyo). Before you know it, the brother and sister are fixing it so that the chauffeur and housekeeper have both lost their jobs, enabling Ki-taek and Chung-sook to fill their shoes.

For roughly its first half (or perhaps more), Parasite moves at a gleeful trot, a splendidly funny comedy in which the resourceful Kims outwit the complacent Parks under the guise of serving them. It's nothing short of delightful to watch this dexterous clan working their elaborate fraud, layering on the fabrication with such ease. There's a benign (albeit juicy) suspense bubbling away under it all, arising from whether or not the Parks will stumble across the truth about these seemingly unrelated people working for them. We feel as if they can't possibly sniff them out, so up themselves are they, but as with any heist there's always a danger. Then, at the moment when it seems the Kims' situation couldn't be more secure, things start to happen. A comparison with Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden, which also featured a jaw-dropping twist in the tail, is tempting, but it wouldn't be right to say that the change that happens in Parasite neatly turns the plot on its head. Instead, it takes what's been happening so far, regarding not only narrative but also character and mood, and plunges it into the most disorientating waters.

During all this, I felt something happen to me that I can't recall happening with any other film. A pleasurable excitement had been growing in me from anticipation of the Kims' exposure, but it took only a single moment (which I can well imagine is the same moment for many others who've seen the film) for that excitement to curdle into something much more uncomfortable. My stomach literally turned, and stayed that way for the rest of the film. This also happened to be the moment when the film's thematic intent, heretofore oblique and imprecise, began to fall into place. Just as it would be wrong to categorise Parasite in terms of a single genre, it feels just as wrong to say that it all it does is launch an attack on a class structure that becomes more and more ingrained and unfair with each passing day. But at the same time, that is all it does. It's just that Bong launches the attack with a grandeur, a weightiness, that is unaccountably overwhelming. It moves beyond the dimensions of satire into something whose treatment of its themes starts to get under your skin. It's really rather harrowing.

That's proof of the film's artistry. For the most part, Parasite is a marvel based on sheer craftsmanship alone. The cast is magnificent, particularly Song Kang-ho. He reminds me of Glenn Close in how his face seems to serve as an emotional battleground: you can never say for sure what he's thinking or feeling at a given moment. The screenplay, by Bong and Han Jin-won, is in many ways what steers the film on its twisty course through stinging hilarity to painful sobriety. Jung Jae-il's score does its bit in this regard. The film is also beautifully designed and shot, generating a vivid sense of space that roots the characters in the distinctive setting. Mustering these elements of filmmaking into a glorious whole is Bong in the director's chair. He keeps a tight grip on the film from top to bottom: when it needs to be sprightly it's sprightly; when it needs to be gut-wrenching it's gut wrenching; when it needs to go all out with stabbing terror, it more than does so. And yet somehow you never once question its coherence.

Parasite is crammed full of timely things to say, but it would be nothing without a strong cinematic voice with which to say them. It's astonishingly rare for a film to be this urgent in its message yet at the same time so captivating in its construction, and for these two sides to come together and affect the viewer so viscerally. On a purely emotional level, there are things in Parasite that are going to stay with me for goodness knows how long - no mean feat for a Best Picture winner.

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