Film Reviews

Parasite Bong Joon-ho

Rating - 9/10

Bong Joon-ho treats genre like Dr. Frankenstein does body parts, resulting in movies that don't resemble other movies, yet somehow still live and breathe. Bong has tinkered with genre from some of his earliest films, such as Memories of Murder, a combination of a grim police procedural with the pratfalls of incompetent detectives, to his international breakthrough, The Host, which deconstructed monster movie tropes by grafting on social commentary and a heavy dash of family dysfunction. More recently, Bong has done his best impression of tent-pole films, helming action-sci-fi-roadtrippers Snowpiercer and Okja, which are not only multi-genre but notably multi-lingual as well. Somewhere in that timeline is Bong's award-sweeping Mother, but that film resists description, except to say it's uncanny and incredible.

Like Mother, Parasite is tough to nail down. Parasite's opening sequences scan as comedy, but then transform into darker shades of humor, and then – as the promotional material proclaims – it turns into something else. In fact, Parasite doesn't shift gears twice or thrice, but with almost every sequence of scenes. Let's return to that notion later.

Mirroring its multiplicity of genres, Parasite avoids focusing on a singular character, this in spite of one of the leads being played by Korea's version of Tom Hanks, Song Kang-ho. Instead, Song's character, the impoverished yet content father, Kim Ki-taek, is given equal screen-time to his family, acted with precision and poise by Jang Hye-jin, Choi Woo-shik, and Park So-dam (playing Kim Ki-taek's wife, son, and daughter respectively). The Kims live in a quasi-submerged basement dwelling with windows at sidewalk level. Dinners feature a view of the neighborhood drunk anointing a garbage can with urine. Clearly aching to escape their poverty, the Kims see hope in the visit of a family friend, a moment which will gradually lift the Kims away from their dreary life.

The story initially follows the son, Woo-shik, when he replaces the aforementioned family friend as the English tutor for the affluent Park family's flirtatious high school daughter. When opportunity arises, Woo-shik finds a way to get his sister to give art lessons to the rich family's precocious boy, a youngster obsessed with Native Americans (called American Indians in the film, a choice likely teasing a colonialist interpretation). To avoid presumptions of nepotism, the Kim siblings pretend they don't know each other. What follows is a series of comedic montages gradually involving the entire Kim family, as one by one they embed themselves in servitude to the wealthy Park family, a sequence culminating in an exquisite bit of sabotage set off by weaponized peach fuzz.

The framing of shots and use of imagery enhance the narrative, as Bong uses angles and explicit symbolism to amplify class-related emotions and ideas. For example, ascending roads highlight affluence, while a cascade of effluence literally suggests that shit flows downstream. This overt symbolism comes from a playful place, ostensibly to incite humor rather than on-the nose fist pounding. I mean, Bong even winks at his other films; the Park family's dogs echo one of Bong's first films, Barking Dogs Never Bite, and Bong nudges at The Host with images of a washed-up Olympic athlete and repeated uses of bows and arrows.

This sense of play and mischief pervades Parasite. In particular, dialogue is hilarious, such as the time when the Kim family utters a prayer of gratitude for Wifi they're able to steal, or when the father expresses genuine pride at his son's skillfully forged college degree. Perhaps silliest and most ingenious of all is the meta moment when that same father prepares a scam by rehearsing a deceitful monologue in front of his son and daughter, who then workshop his performance to the tiniest detail. That scene evokes the writing and acting process brilliantly, making Quentin Tarantino's similar attempt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood look pedestrian by comparison.

Returning to Parasite's multiplicity of genres, I found myself thinking of the film as, by turns, a thriller, then dystopian, then surreal, and by the end an inscrutable combination of horror and comedy-of-errors. Bong is playing with genre on a structural level, cutting and pasting genre in a cubist collage, and using these various genre lenses to get at a deeper truth. Like the shifting subjectivity of Rashomon, Bong's kaleidoscopic perspective illuminates the way the path to truth must, finally, remain elusive. None of this would work if there wasn't some deeper structure unifying the various genre threads, and in Parasite it's a through-line of Shakespearean tragedy that acts to stabilize the film; or better yet, as we watch Parasite's main characters fly close to a figurative sun, wondering whose wings will melt and when, we might posit a more mythical narrative backbone holding the film together.

In the end, Parasite is a film about the marginalized, about people excluded from society, and about the impossibility of their ascension. This comes at a price for the audience, giving us an ending that exacts an emotional toll. But experiencing the tragedy is rewarded along the way, gifting us scenes like Bong's most savagely hilarious set piece of all: a wink to a million thrillers where a hostage is being held, but in Parasite the character's finger isn't on a gun's trigger, but on a smart phone's “send” button. The less I say about that gloriously deranged scene, the better; it needs to be seen to be experienced, and, like Parasite as a whole, is simultaneously one of the funniest and most poignant movie moments I've seen in a long time.