Parasite ★★★★½

2019 Ranked
Seen in Theaters

Where does one even begin? Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a dense, yet accessible, and richly entertaining film that is so many things at once. It is bleakly funny, thrilling, dramatic, and impeccably smart as it unravels all of the aspects of class. From the semi-basement that the Kim family lives in to the elegant home of Park family, Parasite’s precise design and attention-to-detail shines through. I confess that I was hesitant to watch Parasite, fearing I would go against the grain here. Until now, Bong Joon-ho’s films had been good, but lacking for me. The Host being the closest to being fully successful, but even Memories of Murder or Okja were strong but left me cold in unexpected ways. Snowpiercer, similarly, disappointed me. Yet, in Parasite, I find what I have been looking for: a Bong Joon-ho film that I loved.

Bong’s rage is felt through every frame, showing the absurdity of the Kim family life as they reach high into their semi-basement to find a phone signal. Outside, they see the bars and the bright lights, occasionally having to fend off a drunk who tries to pee on their house. Their cramped quarters helps them bond, but they are forgotten and ignored by the world in this home. Thus, when Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is offered the chance to tutor a rich girl, he jumps on the chance. It is immediately clear that the Park family is vastly different. Perhaps Choi yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) being a bit “simple” and easy to trick is a handicap for the Park’s, but their home shows none of this flaw. Bong joon-ho juxtaposes the Kim family window view with that of the Park’s, showing the pristine landscaped yard and privacy that is so far removed from the Kim’s. Set high up in the town, one must travel all the way down and descend into the city before they even come up near the low-lying Kim home. As in Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho uses this structure to mirror society’s hierarchical class structure and pays great attention to every element of the set and what it says about the families. The gulf between the two is massive, a key source of appalled outrage that courses through Parasite.

Of course, as the title suggests, there is some entity is feeding off of another. One may be tricked into thinking it is the Kim’s. After all, Ki-woo gets a job as a math tutor to Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), starting a romance with her. He manages to get his sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) in as an art tutor to young and rambunctious Park Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon). From there, his plan finds his father Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) replacing the Park’s present driver and his mother Kim Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) replacing the Park’s housekeeper. Their plan is often malicious, setting up the driver and housekeeper to be fired while having uncertain goals beyond feeding off of the Park’s wealth to finance them getting out of the semi-basement. Yet, it is not the Kim’s who are the parasite. It is not even former housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) and her husband who similarly fed off of the Park’s. Instead, it is Park’s. They feed off of the energy of their workers, having them at their beck and call, and then belittling them whenever they think they are not around. Their lack of respect speaks to this parasitic behavior, hoodwinking the Kim’s into thinking they have an ideal job while really just using them without any care for them as people. They are obsessed with ensuring none of their employees “cross the line” and mock their smell, writing it off as a grubby and grimy smell that one can usually only find on subways. It is awful to watch, a demonstration of the wickedness of the rich who have become so disconnected from the struggles of the common man that they have lost all empathy.

Yet, Bong Joon-ho is smart. He knows how the system works. Not only do the Kim’s get knocked back down after their brief climb to the top - despite the tantalizing possibility of wealth promised by a rock that should bring good luck - but they fight with the Gook’s. They attack one another quite violently, trying at first to hold their positions with the Park’s and then letting it all hang out as they seek revenge on one another for their various acts against each other. It is an astute commentary on how the rich often play spectator to a fight and battle they created the stage for. The poor are focused on one another, often missing the one who is truly to blame and instead focusing their energy on fighting those also in need. This is why the finale is so potent, finding Kim Ki-taek finally realizing who his true enemy is: a man who would put his needs above all else.

Visually, Parasite is stunning. The work of DP Hong Kyung-pyo is consistently excellent. An aerial shot as the Kim family floats down their flooded streets is perhaps the highlight, but the film’s usage of space is consistently impressive. A tilt down as they run back home through the storm and the usage of the entire depth of field throughout the film are further highlights. The latter is especially crucial in bringing to life the environments of the Park’s and Kim’s, allowing the full scale of the gulf in design to take hold for the audience. It is also crucial in crafting thrills and suspense with scenes of characters lurking in the foreground or with the ominous dark door to the basement looming ever-present in the background. In contrast, the close-ups during the film’s climax are well taken, focused in on Mr. Kim as he finally strikes out and on the attacks that happen in the Park backyard, creating a suitably intense and frightening sequence.

The film’s thrills cannot be understated with Parasite, as much as Bong Joon-ho uses it for social critique, being a tremendous genre work. The discovery of the basement, the thrill of the con, and the horrors lurking within the Park home all ensure that Parasite is an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Even the more typical scenes, such as the family trying to slip past the sleeping Park’s, come off brilliantly thanks to Bong Joon-ho’s keen sense of time and pacing as he never lets a moment last too long, instead wringing it for the exact of tension it can provide. Parasite is also wryly funny, unexpectedly so as it is so tense but the little bits of humor injected are a welcome respite from the tense atmosphere. It is actually one of the funnier films of 2019, never laugh-out-loud funny possessing an overarching oddness that proves quite hysterical.

Bong Joon-ho has made the film he has been building toward for years. A tense and thrilling examination of class, Parasite is one of the finer films of 2019. Sure to be one of the best international films of the decade, too, this great blend of thrills and black comedy is masterfully directed by Bong, an articulate and precise examination of its ideas and genre tropes. It is hard not to be impressed by the artistry here, but what lingers is the feeling of unease and absurdity that the film creates that make this one hard to shake once it ends.

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