Parasite a Wonderful Film (Mildly Over Hyped)

Parasite (2019)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Neon Pictures, 132 minutes, R (violence, sexual situations)
In Korean with English subtitles

Parasite is an international hit. It not only won the Palme d’Or, the highest prize given at the Cannes Film Festival, it was also the first to win it unanimously since 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color. There is scarcely a list of top 2019 films on which Parasite does not appear, and several critics have proclaimed it the first masterpiece of the 21st century.

Whoa! Can we slow down here? It’s a very fine movie that throws more curves than the legendary Sandy Koufax, but it has its flaws. First, though, imagine a film with the dark humor of the Coen Brothers blended with Quentin Tarantino’s propensity for propulsive violence, and you’re in the metaphorical ballpark. But to really get there, you need to add some sharp social class analysis.

The film pivots around the Kims, a down-on-their-luck family of four. They are thoroughly modern in their addictions to smart phones and cable TV–when they can steal access from their upstairs neighbors–but to call their home a hovel diminishes that word. Among its many quirks are a raised platform where the toilet sits and a subterranean view of the squalid alley outside that’s a drunkard’s preferred urination spot. The Kims have skills, though mostly they take their lead from patriarch Kim Ki-taek, who is amusing but indolent.

The film’s tag line is “make yourself at home,” and it’s also the Eureka! moment that sets the table for this comedy/thriller. Ki-woo’s friend is off to study abroad and suggests that he take over his English tutoring gig with Park Da-hye, the pouty high school daughter of a rich family, a process that involves faking college credentials and reinventing himself as “Kevin.” He enters a world he can scarcely imagine. The Park family live in a house designed by a famous architect that’s a South Korean blend of Le Corbusier, Olmstead, and a gated community. Welcome to the realm of new money. The Parks are a young family headed by a workaholic high tech CEO whose beautiful-but-neurotic wife stays at home to manage her daughter, 9-year-old son, and a staff that involves a full-time housekeeper and a chauffeur. The grift is on! All that’s necessary is for Kevin to reinvent his sister as “Lilly,” an art therapist who can foster the “talent” of the Park’s 9-year-old son and help him deal with past trauma. The next step is to get the chauffeur and housekeeper dismissed, so dad and mom can assume new identities. Viola! The Kims are experiencing the luxuries of the pampered Yuppie rich.

Too simple, right? Of course. This is the part of the film that plays for laughs, but there are secrets that literally lurk beneath the surface. Call these the parts of the film that will make you gasp. Toss in some snobbery, impulsive behavior, and an apocalyptic rainstorm that magnifies class differences, and all we’re so deep into Les Miserables territory that a party and an outbreak of sunshine won’t save us.

Bong Joon-ho is best known in North America for directing the sci-fi action film Snowpiercer (2013). If you know that film and the surreal fog in which it’s bathed, you will catch a similar vibe in Parasite. What Bong doesn’t always do is connect loose threads. There are at least three big ones in Parasite and it’s up to you whether you think they matter, but from my POV a master auteur takes care of such things. Give Bong credit, though; one of the hardest things to do is make a film that is both funny and chilling.

The cast is so strong that the film has won prizes for ensemble acting. You probably won’t know the cast other than Cho Yeo-jeong, who plays Mrs. Park and has been in films such as The Servant and The Concubine. If Mr. Kim (Sang Kang-to) looks vaguely familiar, it’s because he was in Snowpiercer. Take my word for it; the entire cast is superb. Think also of how we have two families of four and each is, in its own way, a collection of phonies.

Parasite is a wonderful film that you should see, even if you believe you dislike subtitled films. I would, though, recommend that you dismiss all talk of Parasite being the best film of the millennium as words over a glass of plum wine.

Rob Weir

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