Class warfare is very much alive in the cunning satire “Parasite.” Writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s darkly funny masterpiece about two families at opposite ends of the social ladder strikes a nerve in today’s society. The South Korean comedy-drama crafts a refreshing look at an issue that resonates beyond its borders.
The beautifully shot film has it all: a sharp screenplay, expert direction and phenomenal acting. As unpredictable as it is artful, “Parasite” seamlessly shifts across genres. With six Academy Award nominations, the film – among the frontrunners for best picture, director and international film – is one of the best of 2019.
The foreign-language film contrasts the lives of two families: one poor, one wealthy. The Kims – father Ki-Taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) – are struggling to make ends meet in their cramped basement dwelling. The Parks – father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), mother Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), daughter Da-hye (Jeon Ji-so) and son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) – are living a life of luxury in their spacious mansion.
When Ki-woo is recommended for a job as a tutor for the Parks’ daughter Da-hye, the resourceful young man sees a way for his family to improve their circumstances. Ki-woo and his sister Ki-jeong ingratiate themselves to the Park family, lying to get their parents jobs in the household without the Parks knowing the four of them are related. Meanwhile, the Parks blindly trust their new hires, not knowing the Kims are leeching off their generosity.
As the Kims further infiltrate the Park family, unexpected events threaten to reveal their ruse – and endanger both families’ ways of life.
Well-paced and well-edited, “Parasite” smoothly transitions from a smart comedy into a thrilling drama, firmly navigating its tonal shifts. The film starts off funny, winning over audiences as its characters bend over backwards to find a working WiFi signal. It’s a familiar aspect of daily life that cuts across cultures and subtitles. But as the Kims’ and the Parks’ lives intertwine, the film slyly stokes the tensions underneath their interactions. The clever screenplay continually keeps moviegoers guessing as to what will happen next. Then it takes a jaw-dropping turn – but it’s a turn that works. Once audience members are along for the ride, there’s no going back.
As no-nonsense as the scheming Kims, “Parasite” dives into the divisions between its haves and have-nots. The film relies heavily on visual cues to demonstrate the gap between the Kims’ and Parks’ lifestyles. Bong – who makes a strong case for winning best director – frames the scenes with a sense of symmetry, always aware of the mirror he’s shining on both families.
Each family’s living quarters symbolizes their station. The Kims dwell in a dirty, dank apartment, complete with a smell they can’t seem to escape, much like their low-class standing. On the other hand, the Parks’ mansion is white and spotless, allowing the sunlight to pour in and bathe them in light. The glow of wealth that surrounds the Parks is what the Kims wish to aspire.
The insightful script accentuates how the families perceive the same events in drastically different ways. In one instance, a fierce rainstorm floods the Kims’ apartment, forcing them to evacuate. Meanwhile, the Parks find the torrential downpour beautiful to watch, blissfully unaware of its devastating effect on others.
The film excels at making audiences feel sympathy for its characters on both sides – and then question those sympathies. It’s easy to root for the Kims as they try to make a better life for themselves, but also to judge them as they do so at the expense of the Parks. While the Kims have had to rely on their wits to survive, the Parks appear naive and oblivious as they’ve been cushioned by their riches. But they can also be judgmental as well, looking down on those who work for them. As more is revealed, moviegoers will find themselves shifting allegiances.
The ensemble of “Parasite” delivers an excellent round of performances, deserving its historic Screen Actors Guild cast win. The actors play off each other magnificently, setting up the families for a class showdown. As the Kims’ patriarch Ki-Taek, Song is the film’s standout. The actor builds up a quiet rage as he endures back-handed insults from the Parks. In addition to the main cast, Lee Jung-eun gives a memorable performance as the Parks’ forced-out housekeeper.
With great writing, directing and acting, “Parasite” fires on all cylinders. The crackling social commentary deserves to be among the leading contenders for the Oscars’ top prize. The much-talked-about film – which has inspired a TV series in the works – delivers one of the most impressive films of the year.
5 out of 5 stars
Acclaimed writer and director Bong Joon-ho finally broke through with the Academy as “Parasite” not only earned six nominations, but also will enter Sunday’s telecast among the favorites to win best picture.
Unfortunately, I’m not as knowledgeable of his work as I should be, but I did see 2013’s “Snowpiercer,” which stars Chris Evans and has similar themes to “Parasite.” Both portray a division in the class system where the poor try to improve their standing in society. In “Snowpiercer,” the passengers of a train believe they are all that’s left in a dystopian future. The poor are at the back of the train as the wealthy stay in front. Evans leads a revolt and works his way toward the front. It’s a very good movie that drags a little bit toward the end. “Parasite,” on the other hand, is a complete film, which only gains momentum as it progresses.
The South Korean film centers on a poor family, the Kims, looking to find work. And they will do so at all costs. They outsmart many as they earn jobs working for the wealthy Park family. However, their success comes with an unexpected complication.
Similar to “Snowpiercer,” the class division is made abundantly clear. While “Snowpiercer” provides the visual of the back of a train versus the front of a train, “Parasite” is as simple as up and down. While that is not subtle and could be seen as on the nose, Bong creates two phenomenal sequences that beautifully portray the difference between the families’ lives. One is a bit of a spoiler, but the other centers on rain. As the wealthy Parks see the rain, they love it. It has no effect on their lives. Their house is above everybody else, so they don’t think about flooding. Those shots are intertwined with the Kims running back to their home in the slums. The water gushes down the street and down stairs as every shot shows the family getting lower and lower as the water level rises. Finally, they get home to see their house completely flooded.
That’s just one of the ways the class division is portrayed, but Bong doesn’t make this film about good versus bad. He doesn’t create a right and wrong. The fact the Parks are rich doesn’t make them bad people. The Kims are the protagonists, but that doesn’t make them good. It’s very effective.
“Parasite” also melds genres to perfection. The film starts off mostly as a dark comedy, but shifts into a thriller with a gorgeously shot sequence. While not a horror movie, it uses horror elements to keep the audience on the edge of its seat. The few one-take scenes really stand out. By the end, “Parasite” finds itself at peace with a beautiful and emotional finish.
The film also does a nice job establishing the setting, which once again shows the class discrepancy. Shots of the Kims at home are very intimate and claustrophobic, while scenes with the Parks show how much room they have.
“Parasite” didn’t receive any acting nominations, but the ensemble is so good it would be difficult to single out anybody. They all work so well as one. The Kims and Parks feel like real families. That’s why it won best ensemble cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the event’s highest honor.
“Parasite” is one of the best films of the year and will go toe-to-toe with “1917” in the best picture race. The beautifully constructed South Korean film is much better than last year’s foreign-language best picture frontrunner “Roma,” which ended up losing to “Green Book.” If “Parasite” takes the trophy at the end of the night, that would be just fine by me.
5 out of 5 stars
Rebecca Kivak and Joe Baress write about movies for Take 2 blog. Together, they review current flicks and offer their insights into the latest movie news. Rebecca is a copy editor and page designer at The Times-Tribune. She started her career with Times-Shamrock Newspapers in 2005 and has won several professional journalism awards for page design and headline writing. She also covers NASCAR races from Pocono Raceway. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5126; @TTRebeccaKivak