Parasite ★★★★★

Given the justifiable hype that has followed Bong Joon-Ho's coruscating social satire, I managed to avoid knowing too much about it, just the bare bones: a poor family infiltrates a rich one and things get dark. Going in, you probably think you know what exactly what the title alludes to and you wouldn't be wrong exactly, but it's a smarter and more opaque film than that. Unlike a lot of releases from 2019 - the year of societal cannibalism - it's not a straightforward story of the poor eating the rich. It cuts both ways: the Parks are representative of a parasitical strain at the top of the pile, exploiting economic division to maintain their privilege, as much as Kim's family are emblematic of rapacious bottom feeders. Bong has the whole stinking system in his sights.

I've been a fan since Memories of Murder and it's good to see him getting international recognition now - and unusual for a foreign language film of real sophistication to get such a wide release, from the art house to the multiplex. What I've always liked about Bong is his lightness of touch as a writer and director; he thrives on moral ambiguity and respects his audience's intelligence - he presents you with multi-faceted characters and an unwieldy set of circumstances and says 'you figure it out, I'm not telling you what to think'. Much like Memories, Parasite achieves a lovely tonal balance - instead of moving from one mode to another, with a potentially jarring shift of gears, it never loses sight of the humour, even when the shit really hits the fan. It's a consistently funny film. The delicate tonal balancing act in the script is complimented by the score, which is sometimes upbeat when the action unfolding on screen tells us it should be otherwise and similarly, all low-end ominous strings that presage an underlying darkness when nothing too sinister seems to be going on. Both seem organic.

Balance is a key quality of the visuals too; compositional balance, and a refined colour palette, which emphasizes muted greys and greens, is occasionally shot through with a vibrant burst of colour. One simple tableau that will stay with me is an external shot of the Parks' residence, with Kim's family lounging on the lawn in the foreground, behind them the monochrome angularity of the modernist dream house lit by an otherworldly orange glow, above them a churning sky of blues and grey. There's magic in the composition of the fallout from the garden party too: the tumbling aerial shots tracking the deluge of water over the steps onto the street below, a jungle of cables framing spitting rain and lens flares. High and low is the predominant theme and it's echoed visually in the location of the Parks' house atop a hill, with myriad steps leading up to it, down to the squalid sub-basement Kim's family calls home.

That 'subway smell' is another subtle invocation of this spatial dichotomy and another instance of demonizing the low. What Park is really talking about is the smell of privation. For him, pinpointing the nature of an unpleasant smell is nothing more than a curiosity, but for Kim, who understands the implication of the observation even if Park doesn't, it cuts to the quick. You might not condone his actions but Bong gives you the context to understand them. The Parks aren't entirely unsympathetic though; they aren't monsters, just privileged and oblivious. The fact we see the story unfold through the eyes of the invaders means our allegiance is broadly with them to the end but it's never clear-cut.

She often comes over as a cossetted princess, but Jo Yeo-jeong still invests her character with a certain wide-eyed likability. Lee Sun-kyun's Park can be engagingly down-to-earth at times too, despite his prevalent detachment from reality. On the flip side, as relatable as Kim's wife, son and daughter are they all possess a streak of cruelty that's less easy to swallow. Memorable, nuanced performances across the board, even in the supporting roles. But this is Song Kang-ho's film. He plays the role of downtrodden family man taking a stand to perfection and you bear witness to his reactions to the hands fate deals him - his highs and lows, blind fury and self-reflection. Powerful performance.

In many ways, the Parks have got it coming and there's an undeniable satisfaction in seeing them get it, watching them being taken in by the ingenuity of the con one knife-twist at a time; it's cathartic. There're similarities to Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter's excellent 1963 film The Servant in that respect; many differences as well, but a core idea unites them - that the myopia of the elite invites their own demise. While those at the top rarely look down with any clarity, those at the bottom see every rung of the ladder on the way up.

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