Reel Reviews: Parasite

This Korean thriller is probably the best movie you haven’t seen yet

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Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” (2019). Courtesy of Neon and CJ E&M.

Disclaimer: This review contains story line spoilers. Proceed with caution.

This past Sunday marked the 77th annual Golden Globe Awards in which a few notable firsts occurred. One significant achievement is the 2019 film “Parasite,” being named as the first Korean movie ever to win for best foreign-language film. In his acceptance speech, director Bong Joon Ho offered some great advice to the audience.

“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong said.

I couldn’t agree more. “Parasite” is arguably one of the best movies of the last year. The South Korean sensation has caught the attention and respect of millions all around the globe. Bong crafts a suspenseful tale that surrounds the story of a family of con-artists and the battle of the socio-economic classes. The film pivots between social satire, suspense, tragicomedy and bloody horror. By the end of the two hour and 11-minute film, the figurative rug is pulled from underneath the audience.

Previously, Bong’s films have encompassed a theme about classism (including “Snowpiercer” and “Okja”), and “Parasite” is no different. The director takes inspiration from legendary writer/director Alfred Hitchcock by leading the audience through a winding road of twist and turns that provokes an emotional response throughout the course of the film. All the while, it’s connecting and attaching the viewer to the main characters, so much so that when the final act occurs, we are left with an unresolved tragedy.

The first glimpse of the movie sets the scene. It’s of a street-level window inside of a tiny semi-basement apartment. The film follows the Kim family, who are on the edge of poverty and struggle to find work through current-day Seoul, South Korea. They scour the corners of their run-down apartment with their phones held high in the air, hoping to find a free Wi-Fi signal to tap into from a nearby business.

To generate income, the family folds pizza boxes for a delivery company, but even this thankless job is always one “unsightly” pizza box away from being out of a measly income. Instead of closing their windows during a neighborhood fumigation, they leave them open to take care of their own household infestations. With a cloud of toxic smoke entering their apartment and lungs, they continue to stare off, steadily folding more pizza boxes.

One day the Kims’ son, Ki-woo, played by Choi Woo-shik, receives a life-changing job referral to be an English tutor for the daughter of a well-to-do family named the Parks. Ki-woo is a smart high school graduate that never had the opportunity to attend college. We can assume this is due to financial challenges or potentially because of his devotion to his family that could be holding him back. Nonetheless, Ki-woo fakes the appropriate credentials, and from there, a home-invasion con moves into place. The Kims may be poor, but they are sure as hell are not dumb, as their wealthy employers may presume to believe.

Ki-woo sees an opportunity for his family’s life to change. He hatches a plan for each member to infiltrate the Park’s household by becoming an invaluable and dependent asset to the wealthy family. As the movie’s title suggests, the Kim family starts living off of the Parks in a parasitic way. But Bong challenges the audience to wonder, who is, in fact, the parasite in this film? The poor Kims swindling the rich unsuspecting family, or the upper-class Parks exploiting their impoverished and desperate laborers?

The first hour of the film develops and unfolds the heist-like plan in a comedic and intelligent way, and this is where the film is at its most fun. The protagonists are in constant jeopardy of it all crashing in with one potential wrong turn, which leaves the audience on the edge of their seats. There are a few moments in the film that aim for slapstick scenarios to further the plotline forward, which can be cumbersome and make one say, “Really, as if that could ever happen?” But this is a small critique in the grand scheme of “Parasite,” as the next scene immediately grabs your undivided attention in the most exhilarating way.

The second half of the film pushes the plotline into climactic proportions as it forces the Kims to confront a new set of issues and ethical challenges. Without giving away further spoilers, the last 30 minutes of the film is where Bong flips the script, literally, and takes the audience on an anxiety-driven ride of orchestrated violence.

The film is breathtaking both visually and conceptually. The cinematic visuals of each family’s homes are quite poignant in the movie. From the Park’s lavish architectural home that has large spacey rooms and numerous staircases that lead from one level to the next, versus the Kim’s tight, damp and rodent-infested basement. It sits half-way underground, and plays as a metaphor of being caught between the two worlds. It’s symbolic without being outright obvious and shows the disparities between the two classes—the ones that live above ground compared to the ones living below it.

Despite the oblivious exploitation of the wealthy Parks—such as the scenes where Mr. Park becomes nauseatingly repulsed by the “smell” of Mr. Kim, referring to the odor as an “old radish” because the poorness excretes from his clothing—the writing of the film is done so well that it shows how the entitled family is just as insecure and dysfunctional in their own ways. We are watching their story as well.

Not only do the visuals and writing catapult the film, but the acting performances of the ensemble cast accompanies a marvelously entertaining piece of work by Bong.

“Parasite” is a near-perfect film that is precisely measured. From each line of dialog to each frame of cinematic beauty, there are no special effects or grandiose camera tricks. The message is just as pivotal and becomes a vicious commentary on the haves and have-nots of society, and the violence that ensues at the hands of capitalism.

Transaction versus interaction.

“Parasite” doesn’t come off as preachy or pretentious; it provokes thought and emotion. It tackles real-world issues and remains socially conscious. The audience is forced to look beyond the surface of what may be lurking below, and what we find may stay with us long after watching.