The Korean Cannes Film Festival winner lies beyond the superlative.
If I had all this I would be kinder.
– Kim Chung-sook
If you’ve yet to see Bong Joon-ho’s extraordinary new film Parasite, then I release you from any obligation to keep reading this review. The less you know about the film before seeing it the better, and so I give you my blessing to stop reading. You don’t even have to scroll to the bottom to get the rating. It’s a full four stars. Now, goodbye. I hope you’ll come back and finish reading later.
Are they gone? Good. Then let’s get to it.
It’s not that I’m going to spoil the film, but knowing there’s a twist in The Sixth Sense makes the viewer a detective attempting to solve the mystery rather than a receptive audience. The less you know, the better the experience you’re going to have. In a year where Quentin Tarantino begged the Cannes audience to keep Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to themselves after leaving the theater and Marvel backed an online “Don’t Spoil the Endgame” movement, there’s hope that Parasite might get the same treatment.
Parasite is hardly the first Bong Joon-ho film about class. Even someone who’s only seen the director’s American language films, the excellent Snowpiercer and the less successful Okja, knows it’s a major theme in his work. South Korea’s emergence as an economic power on the world stage has created a gulf between the wealthy techno-class and those on the outside left struggling to make a daily wage (for more on this subject see last year’s excellent Burning). Such is the case for the Kim family, citizens of a Korean slum. They take gig work where they can get it, folding pizza boxes for a small delivery chain to earn a pittance that doesn’t make ends meet. They live in a cramped dwelling at the bottom of the slum, leaving the windows open so that the public works fumigation will hopefully solve their stink bug infestation. In America we’d call it a garden-level, but there’s nothing green in sight aside from the cloud of insecticide.
That all changes when a family friend offers the Kims’ son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) the opportunity to replace him as the English language tutor for a wealthy family, the Parks. “Just fake the credentials,” he tells Ki-woo. “The mom is, well…simple,” he relates. He only cares about keeping the real university frat boys away from the object of his infatuation, the Park family’s daughter. Ki-woo quickly insinuates himself into the Park family with his cleverness and some forged documents.
Everything the Parks have is an easy contrast to what the Kims lack. Both are a family of four, but the Parks live in luxury, the sharp angles and open layout of their house contrasting the Kim family’s meager tenement, a place where shit literally flows downhill. The Parks have a housekeeper and a driver while the Kims huddle in the bathroom to access public wifi. Even their names — Kim is the most common surname in South Korea, contrasting with the pastoral sounding Park — make the divide evident. It’s an incredible opportunity for Ki-woo to make some much needed money, but he has much bigger plans, eventually getting his entire family in the Parks’ employment. Being rich makes you lazy and gullible, so why not take advantage?
Bong and cowriter Han Jin-won’s script is a breadcrumb-dropping puzzle box that will surely be the focus of much deserved praise. Parasite begins as a comedy of manners, a dark Upstairs, Downstairs focused on economic inequality. Make no mistake, the film is quite funny. If that’s all it was then it would still be a very good film, but Parasite eventually opens up into something else entirely and proves Bong to be a director at the peak of his powers — not with a cheapening twist, but a deepening extra layer. Numerous films attempt this kind of tone shifting to their peril, but Parasite makes it look effortless. I have to reach all the way back to Billy Wilder’s The Apartment to find another film that rivals it.
Master cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (Snowpiercer, Burning) also lends his talents to the film, and his and Bong’s visual storytelling is a showcase of “show, don’t tell.” The film’s shots are just as effective as the script at showing how wealth offers a different lifestyle, but also potentially carries a heavy emotional cost. Space is freedom, but it’s also separation. What Bong is able to communicate by having a character stare directly into the camera at a moment of dawning understanding is masterful.
The film’s darkest moments stave off masochism, and its narrative is thought-provoking without becoming moralistic. Bong isn’t interested in a simple indictment of the rich. The Parks aren’t bad people. As the Kim family patriarch (Song Kang-ho) says, “They’re rich but they’re still nice.” “No,” his wife (Jang Hye-jin) counters. “They’re nice because they’re rich.” That’s the ground Bong is most interested in tilling. Not just wealth, but its influence on people. The film argues that its capitalism that creates the discord, itself a parasite feasting on people. The Kims aren’t saints, and the Parks aren’t sinners. Like a lot of insects, this one mutates. Parasite doesn’t hammer its points home. It lets them crawl under your skin.
The best films are often the hardest to write about. Just look back on this site’s reviews of Moonlight and Lady Bird to see that. Writing about film often feels like tap dancing to explain the accordion. Language can seem like such an inadequate tool to explain the power of a visual medium, and I’m certainly no Roger Ebert. How do you communicate the sensations of color, light, and movement? The grace of Hong’s camera movements? I don’t have the skills, and writing about Parasite quickly becomes a muddled effort of heaped superlatives. Masterpiece, unparalleled, the stereotypical “you’ve never seen one like this before.” Any yet it’s all true. Parasite is one of those. Not just among the year’s best films, but among the decade’s. It burrows inside you and lives there, waiting.
See it and you’ll understand.