Updated: Feb 9, 2020
The Korean drama Parasite is the rare movie that works on both the visceral and intellectual levels. The narrative is clever, amusing, unpredictable and completely absorbing as it unfolds. It also has a lot to say concerning wealth and class. Those issues are always present to the characters and certainly hard to ignore as a viewer. However, I was so enthralled in their story that I did not fully consider the implications of everything until after it was over. It is about people from one social world trying to pass in another, with questions about identity and how far is too far when it comes to your family’s survival. Director Joon-ho Bong (who previously made the excellent sci-fi adventure Snowpiercer, dealing even more literally with class warfare) makes no judgments and gives no simple answers. These are not necessarily good people, but they do bad things for understandable reasons. Despite all the tonal shifts, a lack of easily likable characters and subtitles, I highly recommend giving it a look. Odds are, you have never seen anything quite like it.
The Kim family lives crammed together in a small home, struggling to pay their bills. The son is given an opportunity by a friend of his: take over for him as the English tutor for the daughter of the rich Park family. After meeting the Parks, he seizes the chance to get his sister hired by them as an art teacher for their son. Now, unbeknownst to the wealthy Parks, they and the poor Kims, under fake identities and pretending not to know each other, are entwined. That is not all as things take a big turn following a relatively light opening, bringing us to dark and unexpected places.
Parasite (128 minutes, without the end credits) offsets the Kim’s cramped home with the Park’s spacious one. It juxtaposes their hard work and meticulous planning with the Park’s spontaneity and dependence on hired help. The Parks are kind, but also entitled, condescending and (especially in Mrs. Park’s case) very easy to fool. The Kims are lying opportunists, but they are also loyal and smart. Both families are likable and unlikable in equal measure. The rich look down on the poor, even as they rely on them. The poor resent the rich, even as they aspire to be them. It is a complicated relationship, one Bong treats honestly, never losing sight of it throughout his twisty plot.
Now about that plot. While every aspect of Parasite is about as good as it could have been (it won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), the most impressive thing here is the screenplay. Bong and his cowriter, Han Jin Won, take it from satirical dark comedy to straight drama to thriller, without any of it feeling unnatural. It is an important balancing act because, in order for this to have the intended impact, we need to be able to believe these two families. If their behavior felt contrived or unmotivated, it could have been disastrous. Thankfully, even their worst actions have a desperate logic to them. You may disagree with a decision, still you can follow the thought process that brought them to it. It is so well constructed that, though the last act contains tension that is not hinted at in the first half, it all feels of a piece. When it is finished, the light and dark, entertainment and commentary, complement each other in a way that just seems right.
Parasite is difficult to classify: drama, thriller, dark comedy, I have seen some critics call it horror (I would definitely not go that far). It is a lot of things, yet they are never at odds. It is the story of two families from different social classes who become tied together and how their connection leads to permanent change for everyone involved. The writing is sharp, the performances are very good (the highlight is Kang-ho Song as the Kim patriarch) and the direction allows the message to fit into the story instead of overtaking it. Above all else, this is an incredibly entertaining two hours that flies by. It is one of the best movies of the year.
5 out of 5
Woo-sik Choi as Kim Ki-woo
So-dam Park as Kim Ki-jung
Kang-ho Song as Kim Ki-taek
Hyae Jin Chang as Kim Chung-sook
Yeo-jeong Jo as Park Yeon-kyo
Sun-kyun Lee as Park Dong-ik
Jung Ziso as Park Da-hye
Hyun-jun Jung as Park Da-song
Directed by Joon-ho Bong
Screenplay by Han Jin Won and Bong Joon-ho