Bong Joon-ho has one of the most interesting and varied careers of this century so far. Aside from a couple of relatively straightforward crime-dramas (Memories of Murder, Mother), his work often balances an ambitious concept with humor, social commentary, and thrilling set pieces, to varying results. His latest, Parasite, takes a brilliantly conceived story about class divides in Korea and injects it with sharp humorous satire, unexpected narrative turns, and nail-biting tension. It’s easily his strongest work to date, even with a lackluster conclusion.
Critically and financially, Parasite is a resounding success. Bong took home the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (first ever win for a Korean film) in a rare unanimous jury decision. In the months since, Parasite has been showered in critical praise, currently sitting as the #1 film of the year on Metacritic. In less than two weeks of limited release, it’s been a smashing success with US audiences, positioned to out-gross even his last two films, which featured largely American casts. So what about this story of Korean class division resonates so strongly with American audiences? Sure, the core of the film’s thematic material speaks to a universal struggle even foreign audiences can relate to, but mostly, it’s just fun as hell.
Parasite opens with the Kim family roaming around their basement apartment with their phones in hand, searching the corners of their run-down living space for a free wi-fi signal they can steal. Their main source of income seems to be folding pizza boxes for a local company, which barely keeps them afloat. When the son is approached with an offer to tutor the daughter of the wealthy Park family, he not only takes the position, but uses it as an opportunity to get his sister employed as the “art therapist” the Park family’s young son. This creates a string of con artist schemes that eventually leads to the entire Kim family being employed at the Park residence.
Parasite is at its most purely entertaining in these early sequences. The way the Kim family plans and executes their infiltration of the luxurious Park family household is reminiscent of an intricate heist film. They plan what to say, how to say it, and coordinate their lies to psychologically manipulate the Park family until they seemingly control their every reaction. Once they’re fully integrated, the film takes a dark, unpredictable turn. I reveled in the reaction on my second viewing as this jarring twist had my audience gasping. I won’t reveal the direction the film takes from there, but this turn of events is bleak, outlandish, and bold. It hijacks the remainder of the film and adds a further layer of narrative and thematic complexity at the most opportune time. I wish Bong had explored the social implications of this mid-narrative shift a bit more thoroughly, but instead, it’s used more as a means to generate suspense and tension, which is no small consolation – the remainder of the film is electrifying, at least until the conclusion.
From a technical perspective, Parasite is expertly crafted. There’s a sharp contrast between upper and lower class built into the visual presentation. Scenes at the Park family home are shot with sleek camerawork and the colors are so intense, the green grass looks almost neon when we first see it. Conversely, scenes in the Kim family’s basement and the streets surrounding it have such a dingy color palette, we can almost taste the stale and musty air. Bong and his cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (Snowpiercer, Burning, The Wailing) take great care to set up the physical layout of the Park residence. Because we’re acutely aware of the spatial geography, the tension in the film’s second half is even more palpable.
Bong’s films – especially his last two – grapple with balancing tone and genre. Snowpiercer blended severely blunt cultural commentary and satire with solid, if fairly generic, action set pieces. Okja is even more of a tonal mess: simultaneously a heartfelt Korean drama about a girl protecting her pet, an environmental thriller, and a wildly satirical take on American corporations featuring a supremely over the top performance from Jake Gyllenhaal that stands as one of the decade’s most insane bits of overacting. It’s admirable in its tonal ambition, but constantly risks burying its poignant message under a plethora of absurd eccentricities.
Parasite similarly blends genre: part crime-caper, part family drama, part Hitchcockian thriller, and part dark comedy, and it manages to strike a perfect balance for most of its runtime. It’s very funny early on, especially in the scenes of Ki-jung, the Kim family’s daughter, emotionally manipulating the Park family’s mother; the dialogue about the “genius” artistic ability of their nine-year-old son is hilarious. There’s a morbid delight in watching the Kim family infiltrate their way into this stunning household. When the film eventually turns into more of a thriller, it’s tightly-wound and compelling, even when it eventually loses the narrative and thematic thread at the climax, violently unraveling in a way that some would argue is fitting, but left me sorely disappointed.
The awkward, uneven tone, and questionable character motivations in its closing 20 minutes can’t spoil the whole experience though. Even by the time the lengthy, unnecessary epilogue concludes and the credits roll, Parasite firmly takes its spot as Bong Joon-ho’s best work. I’m intrigued to see what his next project will be, especially if he goes home with the Best International Feature Film Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards. Hopefully he can keep up the level of ingenuity we’ve come to expect from him. Also, dialing down the goofiness a bit wouldn’t hurt.
B Middleburg Review 2019 academy awards B+ best international feature film bong joon-ho burning cannes film festival 2019 hong kyung-pyo jake gyllenhaal memories of murder middleburg film festival 2019 mother 2009 new york film festival 2019 okja parasite snowpiercer south korea the wailing