5 out of 5 stars.
In “Parasite,” the poor prey on the rich, but it turns out that there is always someone worse off than you. Writer and director Bong Joon-ho’s commentary on class—South Korea’s entry to the Academy Awards this year, and the first Korean film to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes—is a constantly evolving masterpiece that is unpredictable and is never pigeon-holed into being any one thing. It’s all at once engrossing and enlightening, tense and funny, sad and horrific—a prime example of a filmmaker with something urgent to say working at the top of his game.
“Parasite” centers around the Kim family: mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) are out of work, living in a filthy basement apartment with their young adult children Ki-woo, or Kevin, (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong, or Jessica, (Park So-dam) and taking any low-paying gig they can get. Then Kevin is approached by his college-age friend Min (Park Seo-joon) to take over his English tutoring job while he is studying abroad. Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the teenager Kevin is to tutor, belongs to a wealthy family who live in a sprawling home designed by a famous architect. The family is also comprised of housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), tech CEO father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), neurotic stay-at-home mom Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), and young son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), who is lauded as a creative genius. When Yeon-gyo laments to Kevin about being unable to find an art teacher for Da-song, he sees an opening to get his whole family well-paying jobs with the Parks.
What begins as a story about a family of clever con artists is eventually turned on its head, and then turned on its head again. But the film never suffers from any change in tone or direction. Rather, the story and the characters progress naturally, as Bong manages to set up the conflict in the first act without us fully recognizing it. His script is riddled with ridiculously comical scenarios and funny lines of dialogue, particularly in the first act, but ultimately it is satire, and while he allows us to chuckle at the gullible rich folks in the beginning, he hits us with the devastation of the Kim’s situation in the second half of the film. They work so hard just to barely scrape by, looked down upon not just as inferior, but almost as other creatures, by those who got rich doing something other than menial labor.
The production design sets up a lot of this contrast, as the Kim’s tiny, crappy apartment, where drunks urinate right outside their window and they have to climb on top of the toilet just to get a decent wifi signal, is the complete opposite of the Park’s modern mansion, with sleek furnishings and lavish décor, that looks out onto an expansive, sunny yard. But then Bong introduces a third party and a third setting that is somehow even more terrible than the Kim’s apartment, and the three parties rotate between these settings—and these class distinctions—as their situations change throughout the film. The cinematography aids in this as well. When we see the Kim’s in their apartment, they are frequently framed in medium or close up shots, emphasizing the cramped space. Long shots are used more often in the Park’s apartment, where one figure appears dwarfed in a humongous room. The different dynamics between each family are also more apparent when they are in their homes, able to be themselves. The Kim’s constantly bicker, but in an endearing sort of way; they are obviously a very close-knit group. The Park’s, on the other hand, appear to be stuck in a loveless marriage, and rarely spend time together.
The entire cast is wonderful, and they almost all have equal screen time and work together so well, making it difficult to pick out any particular standout. But Song Kang-ho is so expressive as Mr. Kim, even when he doesn’t have any lines, allowing us to understand his character’s mindset and his actions later in the movie. Park So-dam is also particularly hilarious and stunningly cool as Jessica.
It’s difficult to say more about “Parasite” without discussing the particulars of the plot; in fact, I’d urge you to see it having read or seen as little about it as possible. There are so many elements at play in the film that it will surely hold up to multiple viewings and in depth analysis. “Parasite” is a movie about literal class warfare that comes together perfectly without ever sacrificing entertainment value or becoming as pretentious as the upper class families it depicts. Suffice it to say that while year isn’t over yet, “Parasite” is one of the, if not the, best film of 2019.
Runtime: 132 minutes. Rated R.