Parasite ★★★★★

“Now one thing’s for certain, and two things for sure / Being poor is a disease, gotta hustle up a cure.” These lyrics from rapper Bun B on the Diplo remix of performer M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” could be the tagline for the Kims in writer/director Bong Joon-ho’s devastating Korean masterpiece “Parasite.” And the disease is gloomy and deadly.

Opportunity presents itself to Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) when his friend, college student Min (Seo-joon Park) must leave his tutoring position to study abroad. Min tells Ki-woo that he could teach English to Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the teenaged daughter of the Parks, while he is gone. For Ki-woo, who after serving in the Korean military has no career, this is finally a chance to bring in real money to his unemployed household. However, he must develop an extravagant scheme to get everyone jobs to help out the Park family. For his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park), that means developing a back story so that she can be an art teacher to the Parks’ young son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung). His father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) finds work as a driver for Park patriarch Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), and his mother Chung-sook (Hyae Jin Chang) moves in as the new housekeeper. The Kims are able to win over Park matriarch Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), whose wealth always her to be oblivious to anything outside her brain. The Kims try to pull the biggest hustle possible to get out of the slums and to enjoy the life the Parks have obtained. But the twists that their actions bring have disastrous consequences.

This is Bong’s seventh feature film, and the South Korean auteur remains as deliciously unpredictable as with his previous films like “The Host,” “Memories of Murder” and “Mother.” American audiences are more familiar with his last two English-language movies “Snowpiercer” and “Okja.” While it’s hard to simply define Bong’s filmmaking style, there is one common factor in them — family. Despite being monetarily poor, the Kims are rich in familial love. They will do anything for each other as a unit. As part of their con, they’re strangers only connected through recommendations for their work ethics. As a family, they do everything together. The Parks, however, are frequently separated throughout “Parasite.” Moments are only shared with the hired help, especially as Yeon-kyo spends her days lounging around her modern, sleek home designed by a famous architect or shopping for household supplies.

Class struggle is the needle attached to the family thread, stitching together the ups and downs of being at society’s lowest rung to the desired fabric of riches. The Kims want to be so much a part of what the Parks enjoy, particularly Ki-woo. But “Parasite” does not take sides as to which group is the bigger bloodsucker — the haves or the have-nots. The Kims target a well-to-do family to get a running start, but the Parks don’t know when to stop moving the finish line. Bong also brings home the point visually, from the calm, open concept Park homestead to the claustrophobic, urine-soaked dump where the Kims dwell.

Surprisingly, despite the heavy subject matter and the air of gloom it carries, “Parasite” is a very entertaining film. The characters are well developed and viewers will find themselves rooting for one family or the other. The twists don’t allow for predictability, never leaving a moment or plot device behind. Jung Jaiel’s score is whimsical as it is crushing, with some selections featuring natural sounds and spirited chants. A movie about families in crisis and an economic tug-of-war doesn’t seem like the art of escapism, but the story of the Kims and Parks is engulfing.

“Parasite” was one of the most highly anticipated films of the fall, especially after it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in June, and it was worth the wait.

(Originally appeared in Times Leader on 10/31/19:

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