South Korea is a country technically younger than Helen Mirren, smaller than the state of Kentucky, with a population slightly higher than the state of California. Yet, when it comes to countries leading the way in the realm of technology, education, and the arts, it becomes nearly unparalleled with the rest of the developed world. Some of South Korea’s most celebrated filmmakers, including, but not limited to, Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong, Kim Jee-woon, and of course the illustrious Bong Joon-ho, are some of the most celebrated filmmakers worldwide, and for good reason. South Korean cinema has been the birthplace of some of the most daring, bizarre, emotional and visually stunning films of the modern age, subverting expectations and standards about what film can and can’t be within the confines of what society considers to be acceptable “art.” From lightly fluffy comedies to horrendously dark expressions of anguish, there sometimes feels to be no other indicator of the direction film is heading in during our chaotic times than in South Korea.
So let’s just get to chase here about Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (기생충): you’ve heard of it, and you’ve heard nothing but immense hype for it. Hype is good, but it also can be dangerous (see: Joker), for when a film as lauded as Parasite comes around and is showered in such immense praise months before the actual release, the chance for disappointment skyrockets in the shadow of insurmountable expectations. It’s taken the Cannes Film Festival highest award of the Palme d’Or, the Sydney Film Festival’s Best Film award, as well as the audience award from North Carolina’s own Film Fest 919. It’s a rare film that seems to be connecting with both critical and general audiences in ways that a film hasn’t done in a long time.
And damn it, for a good reason. Parasite is a revelation.
Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is an aging driver living in a basement apartment in Seoul with his wife, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), and daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), all of whom are unemployed, struggling to make it through by taking menial jobs and tasks for pocket change. When Ki-woo’s childhood friend, Min (Park Seo-joon), a successful college student, presents Ki-woo with the opportunity to take over tutoring a wealthy teenage girl in his absence, Ki-woo, must employ the use of his family’s con skills to secure the well-paying job due to his lack of education. As his comfort with the affluent Park family, headed by father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) and mother Yeon-ko (Jo Yeo-jeong), grows, he begins to spot service positions within the family’s life that his own family could fulfill. As his entire family, unbeknownst to the Parks, infiltrate the family’s home, the Kims soon discover something much more sinister hiding beneath the glossy surface of the family.
The “everything is not as it seems” trope is far from one uncovered within films from any country, let alone in America, where it feels like one out of every five movies has some twist on the formula in some way. The difference with Parasite is how Bong approaches the film and the pace in which the story unfolds. This is not a film that seeks to inundate you with twist after twist until you feel exhausted from the spinning, inverting roller coaster you’ve been taken on. Parasite is a roller coaster with a massive drop, no inversions, and soaring hills, a ride that is arguably just as, if not more, thrilling than its showy counterpart. It’s a thrill ride that takes its time to earn your respect by respecting you as a rider. This isn’t something that seeks to disorient and sicken you as much as possible, but rather to get you to come crawling back in line for more rides. It’s Bong’s certainty in the film’s uncertainty that gives it such a rush without having to inundate your senses at every turn.
What makes Parasite so engaging from the jump is the believability injected into such a seemingly ridiculous story, which is made especially possible by the film’s stellar cast. Song, in an ideal world, would be a must for the Best Actor category at the Oscars this upcoming year, with a wonderfully witty, yet torturedly heartbreaking performance as the patriarch willing to do anything to make sure his family is happy in their successes, no matter the cost. He’s the anchor point that makes Parasite so incredibly moving beyond just a storytelling perspective. You want this man and his family to succeed, even if it means taking down a likable family in the process. Also of exceptional repute is that of Jo as the Park family matriarch, Yeon-kyo. She’s a naïve, gullible, yet good-hearted (perhaps? Or perhaps not?) mother who is given a lighthearted sense of life from Jo’s performance. Like a performance in the vein of Alfre Woodard in Clemency, Jo holds the weight of her performance in her face, and Bong knows exactly how to use her face to great effect. Whether it be from a small twitch of the face, a gradual descent into frustration, or a campy expression of shock, Jo brings a life to the character that without it, would make Parasite feel incomplete. But, if we’re being honest here, every actor within Parasite feels like a necessary cog in the moving machine that is this film; remove them, and you have a lesser experience, no matter how small the cog.
And that doesn’t even begin to cover Bong’s direction behind the camera. Rarely has there been a filmmaker so sure of his vision of a film as Bong’s vision of Parasite. There’s not a moment of the film that doesn’t feel deliberate in every single aspect, whether it be with the cinematography from Hong Kyung-pyo, the editing from Yang Jinmo, or the absolute exquisite production design from Lee Ha-jun. Every element of this film is so lovingly and carefully crafted that the film feels like a classic piece of art hanging in The Louvre, to be marveled at by millions of visitors on a wall.
More specifically, to the production design, seldom does a film have such a sense of space as it does here. From the tiny semi-basement apartment the Kims inhabit, to the intimidatingly beautiful technical marvel that is the house of the Parks, there’s a sense of hominess to the film to where you know exactly where everything is at any given point, and, if given the chance, could traverse the settings of the film with the utmost ease. You become just as familiar with the settings of Parasite as you do the characters, and it shares equal importance in how the story unfolds before our eyes.
Parasite exists in a rare category of films that just get everything right. It might not hit you like a ton of bricks in the way that something like The Handmaiden does in just how much it wants to throw at you, but rather, this is a film that exists to torture your brain long after the credits roll. It’s a film that plays with the nature of fantasy vs. reality, and the lengths of action a family is willing to go to for survival, even if it means destroying something else in the process. It’s a film with no stone unturned, no intention left unclear, no question unanswered, and no viewer unmoved. If you’re willing to lean in a bit, you, too, can be taken by the Parasite, and love every painful second of it.
In select theaters beginning October 11th, 2019.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.