Parasite (2019) – dir. Bong Joon-ho

I was at lunch with my friend Silas the other day. We met when we both worked at the planetarium in Salt Lake, but he’s finally landed a job that he likes and that pays pretty well. I’ve been on the same journey. When I first moved out on my own, I was living paycheck to paycheck, and all of my savings had gone into just getting into just getting the apartment. After getting a second job, I went from being desperately poor to just poor. I’m eligible for government-subsidized health care, but every once in a while, I can get quality ramen with a friend.

I can’t speak for Silas, but I know how I got where I did. If I hadn’t worked so hard, exaggerated parts of my resume, had a lot of family support, and been at the right places at the right times, I don’t know where I’d be. Even then, my circumstances are undoubtedly precarious. I have my own apartment, but not my own bathroom, in a pretty great neighborhood, but in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. But I love my life. There are so many people in my life who are probably far more deserving of the kind of comfort I snagged through some hustling and outrageously good luck.

I didn’t hoodwink my way into my life quite like the Kims have, but I recognize and sympathize with their willingness to wriggle their way into the lives of the remarkably wealthy Park family. That director/c-writer Bong Joon-ho is able to recognize the skeeviness of one family’s machinations while still condemning the apathy and condescension of another serves as a solid base for Parasite. For an artist who has spent his last decade on one ambitious social commentary after another, Bong Joon-ho, already one of the most influential and dedicated filmmakers of his generation, has genuinely outdone himself with his vicious, pointed satire of class dynamics, smartly-written and as cleverly-crafted even by his standards.

The Kims are a family that probably should’ve made something of themselves, but never quite got out from their semi-basement apartment. The father Kim-taek (Song Kang-ho), failed business venturer. Daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) has a knack for graphic design, while son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is a solid English speaker. Mother and national track medalist Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin). To make ends meet, they fold pizza boxes. To steal good wi-fi, they crouch above an elevated toilet. To fumigate, they leave their windows open for when the city sprays the streets for bugs. They’re opportunists savvy enough to sustain their modest lifestyle.

And then opportunity literally knocks when Ki-woo’s school friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) offers Ki-Woo his job as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy businessman–whom Min-hyuk has the creepiest hots for. Ki-woo takes him up on the offer. Even though the Kims and Parks live in the same city, Ki-woo steps onto their property and is transported into another world. This is a family so rich they can afford to live in their own ornate, deceptively spacious bubble, while secluded from even their neighbors. During his first lesson with Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so), Ki-woo mentions to Mrs. Park Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), that he knows an art tutor, which Yeon-gyo goes for immediately, giving an in for Ki-jeong to slip onto the Parks’ payroll.

Soon, all the Kims, each under an alias, is employed by the Parks. They’re making good money, and within spitting distance to the upper-echelons of high society. And yet, the Kims are not the easiest people to cheer for. They lie and step on others in order to weasel their way into the Parks’ lavish home, going so far as to trick Yeon Gyo into believing the longtime housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) has tuberculosis by exploiting a peach allergy–in a sequence that is essentially a miniature heist that should win every film editing award imaginable. Even Ki-woo, who is arguably the protagonist, swoops in on Da-hye, which most generously makes him a terrible friend, and most realistically makes him a pedophile. They’re just as willing to take advantage of the rich as the rich feeds off and stokes their desperation.

At the heart of Parasite is not so much an indictment of privilege or poverty, but a rebuke of the capitalist hierarchy that literally buries the those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. The film only happens at all because one character happens to know another. Otherwise, the Kims would’ve found other odd jobs and hacks to get by. In a lot of ways, Parasite almost plays like a spiritual prequel to Bong’s Snowpiercer, his other magnificent, cyclical caste system allegory. And despite the drastic turns that movie plays, there’s a fantastical, if cautious optimism. The Kims have aspirations for getting out from under poverty, but no matter how much they ingratiate themselves to their unwitting employers, they’re routinely reminded of who they are and where they’re from.

Though Parasite has plenty of resentment and anger, that venom goes down pretty easy. Parasite is nothing, if not uproariously entertaining. Bong plays the whole thing as a perfectly-calibrated heist picture, especially in the first half. The pace is breakneck–allowing for a halftime breather, where the family takes over the house to eat and drink, while commiserating over their con. And not since The Handmaiden has a camera moved so deliberately. Even when the frame whips, there’s total control over everything in the frame. But the most care is given to the film’s art direction. While not as flashy as a Snowpiercer, Bong and production designer Lee Ha-jun construct something arguably more cinematic, illustrating the diametrically opposed worlds the Kims and the Parks come from with settings that almost belong in two different movies, but that are perfectly of a piece here.

Not to mention, that the picture is acted to perfection. There are lots of movies with a ton of actors giving good performances, but Parasite is on another level, with each character fully developed and unforgettable. Each player has a moment that highlights how great they are, but if forced to single anyone out when the entire cast is Oscar-worthy, the lazy-but-obvious MVP is Bong’s main man Song Kang-ho, as the pridefully game Kim patriarch, always willing to do whatever necessary to upwardly mobilize his wife and kids. And a shoutout must be given to the subtly hilarious Cho Yeo-jeong, and a delightfully unhinged Park Myung-hoon, who turns the film upside down in the second half. Parasite is an ensemble piece in the fullest sense, where every character has an arc and there are no weak links.

The most unflattering criticism I can give Parasite is that this is a movie I admire more than I love. Make no mistake, I do love Parasite, even if I can’t establish the strongest personal connection the way I can with top-tier favorites. But as a tonally-spry caper that has nary a dull moment, Parasite is a magnum opus that even a looming forbearer like Hitchcock would envy. And yet, this is a film very much the vision and sensibilities of Bong, who brings every conceivable trick he can muster to the table, and the result is one of the most watchable, enthralling, and genuinely surprising films made in my lifetime.

Rating – 9.8/10

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