This is a repost of our review from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Parasite opens in theaters Friday.
The latest black-comedy affair from world-cinema maverick Bong Joon-ho, Parasite, reveals the filmmaker’s bitter, funny, moving diatribe against class inequality in contemporary Korea.
Forceful and precise in Bong’s usage of metaphor to tease out his themes, Parasite continues the director’s fascination in representing societal disparity through inventive, ostentatious allegory last seen in his dystopian genre piece, Snowpiercer, which if you recall played like Battleship Potemkin on a speeding locomotive (Battletrain Potemkin?).
No less provocative with his Cannes prizewinner, Bong masterfully unfurls his tale of one impoverished family’s scheme to furtively indenture themselves to a particularly privileged family like a powder keg, waiting to erupt into all-out class warfare. While it may carry his trademark tonal shifts from humor to terror and back again, what remains inarguably clear is this is a director whose message carries a gutchecking impact of all his formal abilities behind it.
The “parasites” are the nuclear Kim family, who quite literally live subterraneously in the poverty-stricken slums of Seoul, leaching WiFi signals off their neighbors while they wallow in their unemployment, courtesy of an ever-fluctuating competitive economy. The family, in their aimless union, remains affable in their predicament and exceptionally hopeful that their spate of poverty is temporary, even hilariously treating a hunk of stone given to them as a gift as a sign of future riches to come.
Their luck changes when the Kims’ eldest (Choi Woo-shik) receives, through clandestine means, a job tutoring the daughter of the exceptionally wealthy Park family, a snobbish, insulated clan whose very home exudes lavishness. The Kims use this crack in the guarded defenses of the rich to install themselves in the Parks’ lives by any means necessary.
Their familial subterfuge of Bong and Han Jin-won’s script is planned so devilishly and with such delightful menace that their crimes seem almost innocent, just a means of survival for a struggling family. Aided by the superb cast, who ostensibly play chameleon double roles as their slovenly selves in some parts and the refined imitation they present to the Parks in others, Parasite operates within delightful deceit, like a lowkey heist film where the score is only getting a livable wage from those who won’t even notice it missing.
As the family members begin to assume roles as the Parks’ housekeeper, art therapist and driver, the film holds an uncomfortable mirror up to their actions, showing how they betray their class to pilfer the scraps of Seoul’s bourgeois. It is so meticulously plotted that one does not anticipate their scam blowing back in their face.
Of course, it inevitably unravels in a cataclysmic fashion, which sparks the righteous indignation Bong is attempting to express into bleak, desperate tragedy in a boldly stark turn that is rare even for this director. Yet Parasite never falters, thanks to the care put into its craft, evening out its sudden, shocking twists with coarse levity and sleek cinematography. The labyrinthian manner in which the Parks’ mansion is shot, as if the deception bleeds into its architecture symbolically, contrasted with the claustrophobic humor of the Kims’ humble abode shows Bong is firing on all cylinders as a stylist, incorporating all aspects into his tough-but-fair summation of class politics. This film is too sharp in its execution not to radicalize several theatergoers when it is released wide this October.
Parasite is Bong Joon-ho comfortably cementing himself, not only as a newly crowned champion of proletariat cinema (to be shared with Boots Riley, of course) but also as a director still in his prime, even seven feature films into his career. This burns with a timeliness shared by the rest of his filmography, yet its themes and craft will undoubtedly stand the test of time.
It would not be hyperbole to call this his most accomplished film, a well-executed cinematic treatise on class mobility that functions as pure, unadulterated entertainment as well. In my opinion this director has yet to make a bad film, but Parasite somehow inexplicably shows that he is still getting better.