Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo
Runtime: 132 mins
MPAA Rating: R
After taking a detour into primarily English-speaking affairs with Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2016), Bong Joon-ho returned to direct an entirely Korean-language film for the first time since 2009’s Mother and apparently outdid himself in the eyes of filmmakers and critics alike. Parasite took home the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and has the highest scores by a wide margin out of all his films on the major critic review aggregator websites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Having heard all the buzz, I made sure I caught Parasite at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, VA. To top off my already lofty expectations, the individual introducing the film boldly proclaimed I was about to watch a masterpiece. Did I though?
Our protagonists in this story are the indigent basement-dwelling Kim family consisting of father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), and daughter Ki-jeong (So-dam Park). After Ki-woo poses as a university-educated student and lands a tutoring gig for the wealthy Park family (Sun-kyun Lee & Yeo-jeong Jo) to teach their teenage daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung) English, the rest of the family nefariously add themselves one-by-one to the Parks’ roster of skilled laborers while being careful to conceal their familial relationships and socioeconomic status. As with anything constructed on deception, the whole charade eventually must come down…right?
Parasite is equal parts social thriller and dark comedy. As the story unfolds in the first act, you know something is not quite right with how nicely everything is fitting together, and you can anticipate a dramatic plunge coming up. The movie feels mysterious, yet you are not entirely sure why while being caught up in the uniquely artistic setup to the story. Bong Joon-ho imparts this feeling to the audience through subtle bits of foreshadowing and by maintaining tight control over the mood of the presentation. Despite the abundance of comedy, the film always remains serious in nature and reminds you that there are real stakes for the Kim family should they make a wrong step. Moving into the second act, the story takes everything up a notch, and it is a wild and tense ride all the way to the gripping conclusion that I would not even think of spoiling (I have probably already said too much).
The writing makes this film wildly entertaining by cleverly constructing intense situations out of bizarre circumstances. Furthermore, each character’s personality and traits are efficiently communicated, and every motivation is clear and easy-to-grasp. You are invested in what will happen on screen. Bong Joon-ho, who devised the story and co-wrote the nuanced screenplay with Jin Won Han, masterfully uses reincorporation and foreshadowing to give the entire film a unique coherency that will consistently keep you thinking back to previous scenes. Additionally, this film is one of only a few that pulls off dramatic tonal shifts with any sort of dexterity. Beyond the surface-level narrative, the film has a layer of fairly profound social commentary and is intentionally metaphorical, which the script itself not-so-subtly points out. All of these elements elevate the screenplay above the realm of generic Hollywood thrillers and make me want to revisit the film soon.
At every moment, the camerawork is fluid, and the camera placement and blocking are precise. The editing is artful and lockstep with the pace and intensity of the script. The violin-heavy score moves between subtle and intentionally overbearing so as to be comedically melodramatic. Every piece of the technical presentation works together seamlessly to make the story exhilarating.
Despite all its achievements, I took issue with some elements of the film. I had trouble buying a few of the performances as one character is a bit too cartoon-ish for the ultimately dark tone and another important character is not entirely emotionally convincing. Although I largely enjoyed the tonal shifts, I noticed moments where the movie dove too far into the comedy to the point that it undercut my ability to relate to the characters as real human beings and inappropriately cushioned the blow of several severely consequential events. Obviously, I would have to reveal major spoilers to fully articulate myself so I will refrain. However, I might give a more detailed review with spoilers upon a second viewing.
I am not sure Parasite is a masterpiece or even Bong Joon-ho’s best work, and I do not think I can confidently make that assessment without a few more viewings. What I can say is that it is without a doubt one of the best movies of 2019. Definitely check it out if you want an entertaining change of pace from American movies. Due to how much buzz surrounds the movie, I highly doubt another foreign film will beat it out for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, and I am glad that Bong Joon-ho is getting wide-spread recognition as he has been masterfully crafting high quality cinema for the past two decades.
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