FYI: This is a spoiler-free review. (That’s hard to do for this film, so forgive my vagueness here.)
I’m late to this party, but to be fair, I hadn’t heard much at all about writer/director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite until the past month. Then I saw it pop up on everyone’s year-end Best lists — and even a few decade-end Best lists — and that’s something I can’t ignore.
Fortunately, that also means that I walked into the theater to see this under my favorite circumstances: Knowing absolutely zilch about this movie.
The Kim family is in the dumps, almost quite literally. Both parents are out of jobs, and their 4-person clan lives in a semi-basement unit that gives them a rat’s eye view of passersby and wandering drunkards who think their corner of the street was made for a late-night whiz. They scour for free food and resources at every opportunity. The son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), is presented with an opportunity to be an English tutor for the daughter of a local wealthy family, the Parks. He earns it by farce — his sister (who, as a rule, gives less than zero shits about anything) casually forges his non-existent university documents, and his parents gleefully coach him on how to behave to win over a rich person.
The Parks are nice, but “simple.” Silly. Concerned with trivial things, and never inclined to look too hard at a problem that’s beneath their proclivities. And that’s exactly why each member of the Kim family proceeds to don a false identity and ends up working for them: Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park), becomes the Kims’ son’s art therapy tutor. Ki-woo’s father, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), becomes the family driver. His mother, Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), becomes their housekeeper. It’s a pretty hilarious set-up, and they wonder how else they can milk such a comfortable arrangement.
Then someone returns for a forgotten thing, and the film mutates into something else entirely.
Admittedly, I’ve never seen any of Bong Joon Ho’s previous projects, but I’m aware that he’s massively respected and seen as a true lover of film. He said recently that he’d originally imagined Parasite as a stage production. You can tell: So many of the sequences in this film are full of well-choreographed movement, and dialogue that’s a snug fit for the pace of each situation. And he’s efficient — I don’t remember a single shot that wasn’t of some use for theme, narrative, action, or character development.
It’s impressive, then, that Parasite is so visually arresting on top of everything else. In the Parks’ beautiful modern home, Ho gives the audience the kind of grudging awareness that the Kims must have: we’re constantly reminded of the excess of open of space from room to room, the strategic fancy lighting, the ease of functionality that comes with unlimited resources. Likewise, he also turns even the grittiest scenery into geometrical and textural statements that are immensely satisfying to look at.
You’d think it was a comedy, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t know what genre this film is. You see, [Bong Joon] Ho is very good at manipulating an audience…
You can see from the trailer that this is a funny film, in all the ways that make humanity itself laughable. The Kims embody our most ridiculous qualities: selfish, fallible, apt to devise clever workarounds to otherwise solvable situations, brazen, and frantic when things are about to figuratively explode. You’d think it was a comedy, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t know what genre this film is.
You see, Ho is very good at manipulating an audience — not really for the sake of deception, but to achieve the kind of blind-spot realism that we all approach daily life with. So when the film makes its big turn, it’s a truly mind-bending moment. (For the record, my theater went dead silent and started leaning forward in their seats.) There are things that happen in the back-half of the movie that are startling and poignant and violent and outrageous, but they’re all entirely plausible. That’s why it hangs around in your head afterwards, vivid and frightening and thought-provoking.
Bong Joon Ho is a champion multi-tasker across all levels — using visuals to emphasize the narrative, tweaking narrative to flip genres, using genres to tie together a theme… It’s hard not to be impressed. I like films that are hard to classify (see: Burn After Reading, Audition, Get Out) because they often come the closest to depicting the absurdities of being human. Parasite easily joins that list.
If you hate reading subtitles, I’d encourage you to get over it and see this film anyway. I think the bulk of American audiences tend to avoid foreign films, because they assume that dealing with foreign dialogue will be an obstacle for them — and that they’ll need to focus hard on the actors’ expressions and the action on screen to properly understand what’s happening. This cast is plenty expressive, and the action and dialogue are orchestrated pretty comfortably around each other. I can’t see many viewers getting hung up on reading the subtitles here.
All things told, I loved seeing this film in a theater, but I suspect it will work just as well on your screen at home. Detach from any expectations you have and let yourself latch onto the story — just be prepared to go to some insane and unexpected places. Parasite is the sort of cinematic bitch-slap I enjoy, and I hope you will too.