It would be understandable to watch the first ten minutes of Parasite, the new film from Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) and think you’ve stumbled into an alternate universe version of Shoplifters. Both feature a family of grifters living in a hovel and preying on people with money. Both won the prestigious Cannes Film Festival’s top prize a year apart. While both excellent films, Parasite is to Shoplifters what No Strings Attached was to Friends With Benefits. I won’t chase comparisons any further than that, because Parasite is a staggering work of art worth putting on its very own pedestal.
Bong Joon Ho has delighted in subverting our expectations within specific genres, whether it’s a monster movie, a chase film, or an environmental issues farce. His films have often explored the marked differences between the haves and the have nots. With Parasite, he and co-writer Han Jin Won bring this social dichotomy to the world of the home invasion thriller, creating a masterful, screw-tightening, devastatingly powerful gut punch of a movie.
I’ll set up the basic premise but spoil nothing in this review, as the surprises merit fresh eyes. The Kim family live in a damp basement apartment which affords them a view of drunken men urinating right outside their street level window. They subsist on odd jobs like folding pizza boxes and dream of better lives which they can see on their iPhones whenever they’re able to piggyback onto their neighbor’s WiFi. This foursome, played by Kang-ho Song, a Bong Joon Ho regular, as the father Ki-taek, Hye-jin Jang as the mother Chung-sook, Woo-Sir Choi as the young son Ki-woo and So-dam Park as the daughter, deserve a break.
Good fortune strikes them one day when Ki-woo’s friend informs him he’s traveling overseas and needs him to cover for him as an English tutor for the daughter the wealthy Park family of four. Ki-woo impresses the parents, who live in a sleek modern mansion in a well-to-do section of Seoul. The father, Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee) owns a tech company and has the shuffling gait of a man used to his creature comforts. The mother, Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo) oozes compassion and beauty despite not always being aware of her surroundings. They raise their young children in a bubble which gets burst wide open with the arrival of Ki-woo. Soon, enough, the rest of the Kim family insidiously infiltrates the Parks’ lives, and my story description ends here.
Needless to say, Parasite draws you in with its basic premise and then, like the best of Hitchcock and Kubrick, turns it on its ear and makes you gasp. The majority of the film delights in revealing every little shift which occurs in that gorgeously stark home until you slowly realize that everything has changed. In an instant, however, things go bonkers (you’ll know it when you see it), but it doesn’t so much feel like a tonal shift as it feels like an organic extension of our poor family’s desperation. The film doesn’t feature a human antagonist. The Kim’s do what they need to do to survive in a tough world, and the Parks are mostly kind to their employees, although they do separate themselves a bit by noticing that poor people have certain smells. It’s enough of a detail to evoke a ton of empathy for the Kims.
Make no mistake. This is a movie-movie. It has grand set pieces and almost unbearable suspense. I’ve never before witnessed the preparing of a ramen type dish in the context of a nail-biting moment, but there it is for Bong Joon Ho to mess with his audience for several agonizing minutes. Same goes for a sliding shelf door, a living room table, a light switch, a flooding apartment, and an innocent enough outdoor party. What the filmmaker seems to be saying is that what separates the classes is merely a thin veneer. We’re all one tiny moment away from losing everything.
It doesn’t hurt that the assembled cast shines. I especially loved the interplay between Kang-ho and Hye-jin as the parents. Their increasingly dire circumstances bring them closer together with each showing the other tenderness despite the mayhem. I also loved Yeon-kyo’s guileless performance as the too-easily impressed mom. Had she done a little Googling, she may have prevented what ensues, but she seems to love people, so it’s hard to hate her.
For a moment near the end, the air leaks out of the tires with a sequence slightly out of step with what precedes it. I should have known better to question it, as Bong Joon Ho is a master filmmaker. Of course it would swing around again to produce an unforgettably heartbreaking final moment. It’s up there with the great movie endings.
Bong Joon Ho uses everything in his powers to achieve this instant classic. His cinematographer, Kyung-pyo Hong, understands how to present space in a frame and how to mine suspense out of every slight camera move. Ha-jun Lee’s production design presents a vivid contrast between the two main homes. Jail Jung’s orchestral score gives the film an appropriate heft, worthy of such big flights of musical fancy. Parasite is a movie of its time as each of us circle around the ever-diminishing musical chairs. We don’t know when the music will stop, but when it does, some of us are in for a world of hurt. At least we may still find beauty in it if great filmmakers like Bong Joon Ho have a seat at the table.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Parasite gets a 0 out of 50. It features highly attractive people who will appeal to everyone, but the only thing of gay appeal is the gorgeous Modern Home Porn on display.
By Glenn Gaylord
Parasite continues to invade theaters worldwide.