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With his most recent run of movies, writer/director Bong Joon-ho has seen his reach significantly expand. While he first earned the attention of cinephiles with his fantastic and thrilling Korean monster movie The Host in 2006, more recent works, namely Snowpiercer and Okja, have being English-language movies that employed Western stars, and were built in part to find a broader audience.
That in mind, his latest film, Parasite, is a homecoming of sorts, the narrative set in contemporary South Korea – and it also happens to be arguably be his greatest work to date. Taking on the disturbingly universal issue of class disparity, the filmmaker has crafted not just a brilliantly sharp and cutting satire, but also what unfurls as a shocking and dramatic thriller with more than a few surprises up its sleeve.
Co-written by Bong Joon-ho and Jin Won Han, Parasite centers on the Kim family (Woo-sik Choi, So-dam Park, Kang-ho Song, and Hye-jin Jang) – who live in relative destitution in a semi-basement apartment. When they’re not scrounging around desperately seeking stolen Wi-Fi, or trying to make ends meet by folding cardboard pizza boxes, they’re shooing away drunks who like to piss right outside their living room window. They are not even on the bottom rung; they are the rubber feet that keep the ladder steady.
What they lack in money they make up for in unity and cleverness, however, and they are able to quickly take advantage of a surprise opportunity that lands in their collective lap. The son, Ki-woo, is recommended by his friend (Park Seo-joon) as a tutor for the teenage daughter of the wealthy Park family (Ji-so Jung), and it turns out to be the perfect foot in the door. With the matriarch of the Parks (Cho Yeo-jeong) being naïve and overly trusting, and the patriarch (Lee Sun-kyun) a bit disconnected due to his busy career, the Kims manage to infiltrate the upper class with forgery and manipulation.
Just as the parasitic clan begins to celebrate their massive victory, though, a never-could-have-possibly-been-predicted wrench gets thrown into the gears that threatens to dismantle the entire con job.
If it isn’t obvious from the vibe of this review thus far, Parasite is an experience where all of the surprises are best revealed as you watch them all play out in a dark theater – so don’t read the lack of vivid details as suggesting that there isn’t much to say. The total opposite is actually the case, as the second half of the movie spirals into fascinating places that highlight the very different ways that people view the world based on the extreme perspectives provided by class.
What can be said in a spoiler-free environment is that the cleverness of the Kim family is a direct reflection of the cleverness of the filmmakers, with each new stage in the story offering a new wave of intelligence and wit as the central characters further dig in their claws. While it all starts with Ki-woo having his sister, Ki-jung, use her Photoshop skills to give him credentials he doesn’t have, everything escalates from there as the sibling and their parents find their own ways to become a part of the Park household. It’s smart writing that all by itself generates huge smiles and big laughs – and then the wonderful performances and fantastic visuals also add to that tonal aspect of the movie.
Of course, casting has a tremendous influence, and the entire ensemble is fantastic. Young stars Woo-sik Choi and So-dam Park are particularly wonderful and charismatic, expertly wrapping the Parks around their fingers – but together with Kang-ho Song and Hye-jin Jang as their parents there is also an excellent innocence that they project as a family unit, even when they are acting as vicious metaphorical wolves ready to tear apart the helpless herd of sheep that are the Kims.
As incredibly funny as Parasite can be, though, it’s also satire that recognizes the necessity in hitting the audience with the hard truth about the reality of the subject matter being tackled, and the movie does so with expertly crafted shifts in tone that intensely elevates the material to another level. In the same spirit in which its able to make you chuckle, it’s also able to drop your jaw, particularly as things escalate towards the intense third act climax.
With a brilliant eye for detail, and a remarkable ear for tone, Bong Joon-ho has firmly established himself as one of the most gifted active filmmakers, and Parasite is in all aspects a legacy-builder. Every ounce of buzz its earned since its award-winning debut at the Cannes Film Festival is impressively earned, and sleeping on it during a season that is becoming overloaded with great features would be a serious mistake.