Principal Cast : Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-schik, Park So-dam, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyas-jin, Park Myung-hoon, Jung Ziso, Jung Hyeon-jun, Park Geun-Rok.
Synopsis: All unemployed, Ki-taek and his family take peculiar interest in the wealthy and glamorous Parks, as they ingratiate themselves into their lives and get entangled in an unexpected incident.
This review contains minor plot synopsis spoilers from the film. We suggest you watch this film without knowing anything about it.
Parasite isn’t a difficult film to critique. Directed by acclaimed South Korean helmer Bong Joon-ho, renowned for commercial hits The Host and Snowpiercer, Parasite’s dexterous thrills and climactic, brooding narrative of class warfare make for one of the most engrossing films of 2019. It’s a twisting, fingernail-shredding thriller and partial black comedy, told with stylish flourish by Joon-ho’s operatic camerawork and big-screen virtuosity; it helps that the cast are uniformly excellent, the script razor-wire taut, and the editing sublimely accomplished, but all credit to Bong Joon-ho’s ability to get in under the skin of his audience and craft a film that seems perfectly plausible – until the moment it doesn’t.
Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives with his family in a sub-basement apartment trying to make ends meet. They fold pizza boxes for the local business to wavering effect. When his son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is inadvertently hired as a tutor to the daughter of a wealthy tech CEO, Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), a plan is hatched: each member of Ki-taek’s family pose as a variety of servants to the Park family, all unrelated to each other; Ki-taek’s wife, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) poses as the family’s new housekeeper after their old one, who has an allergy to peaches, is fired, while Ki-taek’s daughter Ki-jeong poses as an art scholara sent to tutor the Park’s fragile young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). Ki-taek himself finds employment with the Parks as Dong-ik’s driver. As their accustoming to the wealthy lifestyle progresses, things take a turn for the worse when the former housekeeper, Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) returns one rainy evening with a devastating secret: one that will threaten to reveal the family’s sham and turn their lives into a nightmare.
I’m a comparative critic, despite my reservations about doing so. Joon-ho’s direction here is sublime, echoing early David Fincher or later Alfred Hitchcock with his ability to craft tension from the most minute or minuscule of moments, each one adding to the previous to coagulate the violence and rage within into a withering, seething whole. It’s a technically precise affair, filled with moments of both horror and awe at what the director accomplishes; Parasite is a wholehearted shaken fist at social degradation and class disparity, Joon-ho’s script (co-written with Han Jin-won) is so precise and shattering it’s little wonder the film has been so acclaimed. Is it worthy? Hell yes. There’s a vague sense of Panic Room amidst Parasite’s eloquence and scintillation, and for good reason: a lot of Fincher’s technical precision with the Jodie Foster flick mirrors that which Joon-ho achieves here in terms of maintaining his cast throughout a relatively small location with increasingly fraught nerves and twists to shatter convention.
The plight of the Kim family, brought from the squalor of their below-ground apartment (which, I might add, seems like Hitchock’s Rope in reverse) to the sumptuous yet minimalist Park family home, a keynote to the film’s tightly-wound sense of menace, is one audiences globally can attach to, thus drawing even the most hesitant subtitle reader in. Yes, Parasite is a “foreign” film in every respect: culturally, politically and without a shred of English, so if that’s putting you off giving it a shot please can I offer the promise of an instantly classic film that will overcome such racial boundaries! The characters feel real and fleshed out, lived-in if you’ll pardon the parlance involving a film where people subsume a family’s existence for their own moral debasement. Questionable tactics leading to minor success for the Kim family, while the Park family live in wealth and luxury seemingly without a care, form the crux of the film’s tension: the uncovering of the scabrous truth behind the Kim family doing what they do leads to the nightmarish scenario promised early in the film. Joon-ho ratchets up the tension with scalpel-precise editing and enormous restraint in shot selection. Every frame of Parasite tells a story, or propels the story forward, which is something few American films accomplish with as much frequency. It’s a credit also to DP Hong Kyung-pyo, his lensing of the film a lush, softly-focused family comedy giving way to a more violent and darker thriller that ends the only way it truly can: with bloodshed.
The cast, none of whom I’m familiar with, are excellent, particularly the Park matriarch Yeon-gyo, portrayed by a stellar Cho Yeo-jeong. Her work as the scattered missus trying to look after her kids by paying people to diagnose them is both hysterical and eminently tragic, and Yeo-jeong is both beautiful and fragile all at once. Coupled with the turn of Song Kang-ho as Ki-taek, who leads his family with a gravitas and paternalism worthy of a classic, and the poor disengaged Mr Park, played by a terrific Lee Sun-kyun, and you have an ensemble of great Korean talent assembled for this easy to understand story. Even if you’re subtitle-averse (and really, you shouldn’t be, you philistines) understanding this story is pretty simple, at least from the outset. The film’s climax is one in which things start to get a touch confusing, but the elemental themes of the film and it’s universal sense of Downton Abby-esque class outrage maintain a simplicity the film doesn’t dwell on. To wit: Parasite transcends language and culture in almost every degree.
I had a blast with Parasite: it’s one of my favourite foreign language films ever (which is no tall order, considering it’s up there with Amelie, Babette’s Feast and Run Lola Run) and easily one of the greatest films of the year, if not the decade. Cooly directed, superbly acted and woven from the genetic material of genre classics from a bygone era, Parasite is a thrilling, darkly comedic ride into social introspection saddled with an undercurrent of rage against the system – a little like Snowpiercer, only a lot less overt – that will have you on the edge of your seat for almost every second. A splendid, magnificent, terrifying and altogether hypnotic cinematic experience like no other.