We’re barely past the halfway mark, and already this November has been a cinematic month like few others. Harriet and By the Grace of God are must-sees, and even the latest Terminator installment was above average. And I still haven’t had a chance to see Jojo Rabbit (though its reviews are a mixed bag) or Marriage Story (near-unanimous raves), while another promising trio waits in the wings: Tom Hanks’ Mister Rogers movie, Scorsese’s latest, and Knives Out.
Well, add Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite to the must-sees. I went into it with guarded expectations, since its festival buzz was strong, but I’ve not admired the South Korean director’s work. I found his monster flick The Host unwatchable, while Snowpiercer – the dystopic adventure starring Tilda Swinton’s prosthetic teeth – irritated me. (I skipped Bong’s Okja after those two disappointments, but I guess I need to go back and watch it now.)
Parasite is the sort of film that critics live for, leaving me agape at its visuals, its surprising yet seamless genre-shifting, and its sneakily devastating social commentary. The only thing keeping it short of this year’s other two jaw–droppers is its inconsistent acting. Early in its run time, the performances felt staged and stilted. This impression dissipated after the first 30 minutes, so I wonder if Bong filmed his scenes sequentially, and his actors hadn’t yet found their groove. Or maybe the narrative momentum picked up by then, so I stopped noticing any imperfections.
Parasite is a story of two Korean families, and by extension, two Koreas, one of the securely rich and one of the wobbly poor. For this reason, it reminds me of the major Korean film that made it to American shores last year, Chang-dong Lee’s Burning. But where Lee’s film was diaphanous and elusive, Bong’s is solid, substantial.
A better comparison is Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, where early playfulness yields to can’t-look-away horror. Bong’s vivid visual metaphors of ascent and descent for the wealth gap even had me thinking of Akira Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths and High and Low. Unlike the Japanese master, however, a climactic deluge doesn’t catalyze social purification but instead brings South Korea’s ugly economic rift rising to the surface.
Parasite opens on the first of its two families, the Kims, living in squalor in a dingy basement apartment. Subsisting hand to mouth, the parents and their two children steal wi-fi from neighbors and feed themselves by folding pizza boxes for meager pay.
Once in the door, Ki-woo falsely trumpets his sister’s achievements to Yeon-kyo, the gullible mother of the Park family. Soon, Ki-jung is giving art lessons to the bratty son of the Park family, to whom Ki-jung laughably ascribes the expressive talent of a young Basquiat.
During the first half of Parasite, the film has the brisk giddiness of many an audacious heist or scam film (say, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Ocean’s Eleven, or The Italian Job). Once the younger Kims have earned the trust of the Park family, they find work for their parents there, too, all the while keeping their employers ignorant of their familial connection.
In its second hour, events accelerate and take a bizarre, if not downright insane, turn. From here, Parasite’s tone is more akin to Jordan Peele’s horror films, the social commentary increasingly pointed. The music perfectly matches this transition: Jaeil Jung’s orchestral score shifts from a cheery Classical to a stirring, tragic Romantic style.
Cinematographer Kyong-pyo Hong’s visuals (he also did fabulous work on Burning) forcefully contrast the lives of the Kims and the Parks. The Kims dwell among grays and ugly crisscrossing wires, as the Parks luxuriate among the greens of a manicured lawn and looming trees, their home on a widely accommodating lane. Shots are framed so the Kims are staring repeatedly from below at the oblivious Parks.
Thematically, Parasite stands out from numerous films that highlight the income gap in the developed world, digging deeper than most into the contrasting mindsets. The Parks can afford to spoil their children and indulge their last-minute whims. Meanwhile, dreams of upward mobility in the poverty class are shown to be wishful fictions for the young, morphing into despair for the old.
More substantial still, Bong’s film insightfully shows how the resentment that the poor should feel for the obscenely wealthy mutates into anarchic infighting for the crumbs falling off millionaires’ and billionaires’ tables. In the U.S., one need only look at the worship of Donald Trump, Elon Musk, and their ilk, as the downtrodden displace their wrath onto immigrants and ethnic minorities. Judging from Parasite, a parallel process is occurring in South Korea.