“[Bong Joon-Ho has] crafted an indelible soul-whipper, a tale primed to have a profound cultural resonance. “
Right off the bat, let me say that Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is an absolute supernova; an explosion of talent and brilliance and incisive commentary that we don’t get very often. It’s worth seeing, and is probably best first viewed without so much as an inkling as to what the plot is. I’ll do my best to avoid spoiling all the twists and turns of the film in this review. But, I have to talk about the set up, which occurs in such a magical, natural way that even it feel like a series of genuine revelations. Reading about it will surely, for some, diminish the effect of those early twists. If you’re already sold, close this article and go see the film. If you’re not sold, or if you’re someone who likes to know about stuff before going in, this is for you.
Okay, so let’s talk about Parasite.
There’s a certain folklorish, Shakespearean quality to the way that Parasite plays out. I don’t mean that in the hoighty toighty, how-we-currently-understand-Shakespeare way either. I mean that this must be how Shakespeare’s contemporaries felt watching the bard’s work for the first time, watching stories about people, or types of people, that they’d recognize.
Take Romeo and Juliet for example: there are two old, rich families (everyone has encountered at least one of those) who hate each other (a good blood-rivalry is nothing to be ashamed about) whose children accidentally meet and fall in love (oh no, how awkward) and as a result, tears each of the two families apart. It’s a comedy in the old sense of the word, bending the entire social structure until the brink of breaking, lampooning everything along the way, only to have, after some catastrophe, a different status quo take hold.
Parasite is about two families (so far so similar to R&J), one dirt poor, the Kims, one gilded rich the Parks. Each member of the poor family then, unintentionally at first but then with hilarious and dastardly cunning, is employed by the rich family as one kind of household servant or another; one is a tutor, one a therapist, one a driver, etc. Their benefactors have no idea that each of their new household servants are part of the same family unit.
This is partly achieved because the Kim family are excellent huxters. Early on, a conversation about their crappy job folding pizza delivery boxes is somehow turned into a conversation about how the oldest son Kim Ki-Woo (Woo-sik Choi) should be hired by the company as a full time employee. The pizza company representative, initially angry and dismissive of their work ethic, is clearly confused about why she is somehow supposed to hire Ki-Woo. She is unsure how they came to this part of the conversation, yet somehow feels obligated to oblige their request. Ki-woo and Ki-jung (So-dam Park) stand on either side of her, like shoulder based angels and devils both working to the same end. The other reason the Kim family manages to get every one of their number hired is that the Park family is so naive. Or, rather, they’re too rich to really care, and gleefully walk into every trap laid for them by the scrappy Kim family.
The two families really do work as excellent foils for one another. The patriarch Park goes on about how he has these moral lines he won’t let his servants cross, while the Kim’s patriarch waxes poetically about how plans and principles are pointless and that only a desperate survival instinct can ensure your continued existence.
Given this setup, it would be easy for Joon-ho Bong to fall into moralizing, limiting his story to being a simple allegory. There’s certainly deep symbolic resonance to many of the choices, but allegory isn’t what Joon-Ho Bong is concerned with. He’s crafted an indelible soul-whipper, a tale primed to have a profound cultural resonance. It easily invites for deeper engagement and understanding. It’s unclear who the titular Parasite is: the Kim family, leeching off of the Park? If so, are we therefore re-evaluate our instinctive condemnation of those we call parasites? Or are the Parks, who amass an immoral level of wealth, the real parasites here? The film is ripe for a plurality of understandings, as the best movies often are.
Parasite looks great too. From the dingy grunginess of the first shot, to the smooth and perfect Park house, to a particularly amazing sequence in the rain -everything looks, sounds, and feels great. The Park house in particular is a brilliant feat of production design, feeling modern and chic in both the best and worst ways.
If telling a brilliantly plotted and deliciously executed story wasn’t enough, Parasite also boasts some truly excellent performances from its entire cast. Truly, not a single member does less than stellar work. The Kim family stands out as being particularly strong, if not just because we spend more time with them.
The only element of Parasite that didn’t quite land, for me, was the final ten minutes or so. If it had ended just before those ten minutes, it would’ve felt literally perfect. But Bong insists on going a bit further, adding an epilogue that is possibly unneeded, and also delightful in how it stirs the pot. But the more I think about it, the more vital it seems, the more necessary its implications become. Even if I hadn’t come around to it, it’d still be only a small issue. Parasite would still be a masterpiece.