Kennedy London, Associate Arts & Entertainment Editor
The hype that has surrounded acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s black comedy thriller Parasite has been extraordinary ever since the Cannes Film Festival back in May. Winning the prestigious Palme d’Or, Cannes’ top prize, the film has never left discussions throughout the year, discussions that have included films such as The Irishman, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Farewell, Joker, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There have even been discussions about this film being among the best of the decade. Spoiler: it is much deserved.
Parasite takes place in South Korea where the main family of four, led by patriarch Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho), are in extreme poverty and are struggling to get by in their semi-basement apartment. When the son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) finds an opportunity to fake his identity in order to become an English tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Park family, he slowly gets the rest of his family jobs for that family through deceiving methods as he did. Soon, their quest for prosperity mutates into a moral dilemma as a drastic turn of events throws a wrench into their scheme.
Parasite is a wonderfully crafted, deceptive, incendiary, and wholly captivating giant of a film that flows between genres beautifully and fully explores the thematic schemes that Bong Joon-Ho has created. The story starts at the simple premise of one family’s path to prosperity and slowly evolves into an intense game of cat and mouse. It’s almost like Bong plays this game not only with his well-written characters but with the expectations of the audience.
What is really striking about Bong Joon-ho’s direction and screenplay, co-written with Han Jin-woon, is that the balance between comedy and drama is so seamless that you often do not realize how much it is happening. Scenes would go from laugh out loud hilarious to deadly serious and the focus never breaks. Bong knows how to create radioactive moments of tension, then decompress that tension with situational humor, only to kick it back up again.
Bong also is a master at letting the audience know just enough about a scene without telling them filler information that serves little purpose. He slowly peels back the layers of the screen and waits for the right moment to throw a firebomb in the middle of it. This keeps the audience on edge and waiting for the next one to come.
Thematically, this film soars with not just telling you that social class division is a problem but showing you how different social classes might have preconceived notions of each other, how they might pass comments not knowing the other’s dire situation, and showing you how the different classes might reaction to social and environmental situations. While you might be happy with the Kim family finally getting some positive momentum in their lives, you often pause and wonder about the morality of the situation. The family is a parasite to this rich Park family and taking advantage of the frequent absence of the patriarch Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) and the innocent ignorance of the wife Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeon), but, what other options do they have in their desperate situation? Bong wants to examine how unpredictable human nature is when there is desperation involved, when there is money involved, and when there is pride involved.
The performances from the cast are all great and all bring their characters to life, full of humor, irreverence, and hilarious fun. Most of the characters are cunning, specifically the Kim family because they have to be and the Park family give off this high palace vibe to them because of their glossy and fabulous exterior. However, the standout performance of this entire film is Mr. Song Kang-ho.
From the first five minutes, you can tell that something ticks differently in the brain of Ki-taek. As the head of the family, he is exuberant, focused, and always puts his family first, However, there is the second level of his character; it’s almost a second form that festers inside of him. It’s a much darker and almost sinister side to his character that is shown to the audience, but not his family. When you can tell when a mental switch goes off in a character’s head based on their facial expression, that is when you know when you are dealing with a different kind of actor. Song does this so effortlessly that it’s almost scary when the switch is flipped and you realize that he’s in a different mode.
Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is not only gorgeous but all about precision. What is shown, what is not shown and left up to interpretation, the lighting, framing, and the camerawork all work in unity to create this uneasy atmosphere that feels like a volcano about to erupt. Hong’s framing especially is fantastic as it works hand in hand with Yang jin-mo’s sharp editing to manifest the storytelling into a game of chess.
Jung Jae-il’s musical score is absolutely sublime as it adds to the dramatic sections of the film greatly and makes for some truly somber moments. The production design by Lee Ha-joon is very sly and inviting, but like the story, it too has many sides and personalities to itself. Lee shows not only the prestige of the Park residence but the gritty and grim reality of the environment that the Kim family calls home.
Parasite is a film that excels at operating through its stages. It starts off with a plot that is simplistic, but slowly transforms into some of the most unexpected storytelling of 2019 with a bonkers twist in the middle and an absolutely wild third act that has drastic ramifications. Bong Joon-ho’s commanding presence is felt on and offscreen as he creates his own sense of pace of how the story needs to be told. The social commentary is biting, the many twists and turns reveal the main layers that the film is hiding, and there is an overall sense of movie magic as you are in awe of what you are witnessing. It’s an exceptional and elaborate labyrinth that knows exactly what it wants to communicate at precisely the right moment. While Bong was already known as a great filmmaker, this is the one that has sent him into full international notice. It is well deserved.