The Kim family in Parasite.
The word “masterpiece” is used far too often in film criticism. Few films actually stand at the top of an auteur’s filmography as his/her crowning achievement. Even fewer films are made by true masters of cinema. For Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho, Parasite represents the coronation of a newly anointed master into the pantheon of greats. Despite this narrative starting as soon as the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film won the prestigious Palme D’or, the festival’s top prize, the film fails to fall prey to the six months of hype that has surrounded it.
Parasite marks a return for Bong to his home country of Korea. He made his previous two pictures, Snowpiercer and Okja, in the States, using mostly American actors. Bong has long embraced genre filmmaking and has never been afraid to pay homage to his influences. This was especially apparent in 2017’s Okja, which functions as Bong’s most blatant homage to Spielberg. The film mixes a childlike sense of wonder with a critique of industrialization to mixed results. Although Okja is a much better film than is often recognized, its constantly wandering tone at times grows weary. With Parasite, Bong attempts another high-wire act of mixing genres and tones, this time with flawless execution.
Parasite follows the Kim family, an unemployed family of four living in a semi-basement. In the opening scene, the viewer sees them struggle to steal nearby Wi-Fi signals as they are confined to folding a local restaurant’s cardboard pizza boxes for a meager paycheck. When the son’s old friend, who now attends university, visits the Kim family, he makes an offer to his struggling friend. In preparation for going abroad for his studies, he asks Ki-woo to take over for him as an English tutor for a rich high school student. He assures his friend that the Park family is rather “simple” and would be easily fooled by fake papers claiming he was a college student. Armed with his friend’s recommendation and forged certificates, Ki-woo visits the Park home and manages to get the job, complete with a handsome paycheck. From here, the Kims engage in a cunning plan to improve their impoverished lives.
Bong Joon-ho on the set of Parasite.
The plot takes a number of twists—one would be wise to go into the film with as little information as possible. Almost impossible to describe, the film’s tone and genre is constantly changing. While a thriller may best describe the film, Parasite is also quite hilarious at times. This, combined with elements of heist films and a few sequences that allow Bong to showcase his ability to terrify an audience, result in a wholly original film that only Bong could make. The film is incredibly fun to watch and is always unpredictable. With most of the sets built completely from scratch, including the houses of the two families, Bong crafts a film in which every aspect of the production is in harmony with each other. He famously storyboards the majority of his films, putting so much effort into the pre-production that the panels resemble more of a manga comic than a traditional shot list. The amount of effort put into the plot construction, characters, and production design is at once invisible and evident—the film works so well that many smaller details go unnoticed on the first viewing. Much credit, too, is due to the cast, who deliver amazing performances. In particular, Bong’s frequent collaborator Kang-ho Song is terrific as Mr. Kim, as is So-dam Park as Ki-jung, Mr. Kim’s duplicitous daughter.
What makes this film truly special is how it comments on Korea’s wealth inequality, an issue that also applies quite clearly to the United States. Parasite stands as yet another recent example of a Korean film exploring this issue far better than any American film. Last year’s Burning and 2016’s The Handmaiden both brilliantly address issues of wealth. All these films contain a level of depth and nuance that is sorely lacking from many American films on the same subject—yes, I am looking at you Adam McKay. Parasite does not view the Kim family’s crimes with rose-colored glasses. Instead, the purposeful grey morality of the film interrogates the capitalistic structures that create these situations in the first place. While the film is distinctly Korean, there is an undeniable universality to Parasite’s themes. This point is made painfully clear in the way Parasite’s characters discuss America. They trust and revere its institutions, education systems, and products. Little do they know, however, how the political climate and wealth inequality is just as corrupt and distressing.
Parasite is not only one of the year’s very best films, but one of the decade’s finest. As American moviegoers seem to finally be on the precipice of admitting their superhero fatigue, the way in which domestic audiences have embraced this astonishing film inspires hope for cinema’s future, particularly in a time dominated by pessimistic predictions about the medium’s future.
Photo Credits: NEON