Film Review: Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’ Is A Multi-Layered Masterpiece
Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite has surfed a wave of critical acclaim since winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes over frontrunners like Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood and Pain & Glory. In the process, it has broken new ground for both Asian cinema and genre films. Not that Parasite neatly fits into the latter box unlike The Host or Snowpiercer. And therein lies its language barrier-busting appeal. At its core, Parasite is a morality play about the origins of crime and violence.
As it turns out, that topic (and the accompanying themes of class and income inequality) is the hot button film issue of 2019. Lorene Scafaria’s breakout hit Hustlers champions a group of marginalized women who turn the tables on slobbering rich guys, while Joker is shaking the proverbial table by contending that the titular character’s descent into madness and mayhem is at least partially due to poverty and The System. Both films execute their missions with flair and heart, but the line between good and bad, at least in the audiences’ eyes, is clearly defined.
Parasite, on the other hand, makes no such distinction. Which lends the critically-adored film a certain gravitas, not to mention an air of dread, that belies its genre foundations. In true Bong Joon Ho fashion, the pitch-black comedy/thriller begins by introducing us to a family at the periphery of Korean society. The Kims are first-world poor. They are educated and internet savvy, but spend their days folding pizza boxes on the floor of their bug-infested apartment. The Kims are down on their luck, but doing the best they can.
The family’s world changes when their son is offered the chance to tutor for a wealthy high school student. He has no qualifications, but the opportunity is too good to refuse. Mrs. Park, the scattered matriarch of the rich family, blindly accepts the pretend-tutor into their life, taking it for granted that he might as well have entered another dimension. While clearly oblivious to the world around them, the Park family is depicted as good natured and welcoming. But they are loaded in a way that makes them ripe for gentle exploitation.
The Kims infiltrate the Park family in a matter of weeks without malice or ill will. Sure, they have to fudge resumes and tell a few lies, but where’s the harm in that? Moreover, they still carry out their assigned tasks and jump when called. Which begins to wear on them as they become increasing used to the opulence around them. As tensions rise and the families slide towards an inevitable collision, we are left with the perplexing task of assigning blame. If both families are generally good, why is blood spilled?
An American film would most likely answer this question for us, or at least steer the conversation. Bong Joon Ho, on the other hand, leaves it for the viewer to decide. After all, Parasite is anchored in the grey zone between good and bad. Which makes the film, for all its gothic whimsy, chillingly realistic. Despite this philosophical quandary, Parasite is anything but heavy going. The Oscar contender is so acutely observed and detailed, that it’s impossible not to be swept up in its ambition.
And then there’s the current of black humor that runs through Parasite. From the rich kid’s complete lack of artistic talent to the Kim family’s never-ending search for wifi, it is punctuated with moments of laugh-out-loud humor. In fact, so much of the film is exceptional that it’s easy to overlook the finer details. Like the director’s use of everyday sounds to let the real world into his dark fairytale or the way he employs Jeong Jae-Il’s baroque score to reflect the poor family’s pretension. Make no mistake, Parasite is one of the best films of 2019.