2019 | rated R | starring Song Kang-ho, Jo Yeo-jeong, Park So-dam, Choi Woo-sik, Lee Jeong-eun | directed by Bong Joon-Ho | 2 hrs 12 mins | In Korean with English Subtitles
Hollywood has been very busy in 2019. It has been juggling the business of trying to shape American political opinion, forcing debates about identity representation to obfuscate for years of studio heads harassing women, master-planning decade-long franchises out of interconnected episodic parts and combating streaming services. Amid all of this, a few people out there are still actually making movies. Enter Bong Joon-Ho from halfway around the world, the South Korean genre-mastermind with a roster of cult classics and blockbusters under his belt. Parasite is a smaller film, a domestic family drama, that might look like it’s a bid for prestige award-season approval, but have no fear, Parasite is every bit as fun, funny, quirky and crowd-pleasing as anything Bong has produced. It’s a real film. A rich, full-bodied, red-blooded, colorfully-drawn and expertly-crafted goddamn film.
The most consistently entertaining movie I’ve seen so far this year, Parasite unfurls a story that is best viewed going in completely cold. Bong’s story is a tightly-scripted Jenga tower made up of cons, coincidences and mistaken-identities that only exists because of the very specific series of events that line up exactly as they do. It’s a reminder of how so many movies go onto autopilot: a box, the body of which is already set only, differentiating itself from how it gets in and out of it’s pre-set situation, a rigid structure that forces action sequences every x number of minutes and characters to break up before the third act. Bong’s film is a live-wire with the story propelled along by the characters, their motives and a few turns shocking and outrageous. The film doesn’t have a high concept hook that can be easily explained. It is classically styled in that way, feeling more like a classical structure used by everyone from Preston Sturges to Pixar.
The film plays like a (very funny) comedy of manners inside the skin of a Hitchockian thriller. We first meet the Kim family lead by Bong’s frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho (if you’ve seen a South Korean movie at all in the last 10 year’s you’ve seen Song being and fighting monsters). After many failed financial endeavors the Kim’s are destitute in a basement apartment until one day son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) masquerades as a tutor, getting a job for the wealthy Park family and soon conning his entire family into the home and lives of the unsuspecting Parks.
There is an upstairs/downstairs class structure satire in here to be sure, but where a Hollywood studio would sketch it out in crayon with the evil rich abusing the saintly poor, in the hands of Bong the complexity of real characters are the focus and nobody truly emerging as hero or villain. The Park’s are nice and aloof, their kindness blown off as a product of not having to suffer. The Kim’s are in survival mode, but often selfish, callous and manipulative. Bong hides people in the walls and the proverbial bomb under the table, then lights the fuse and waits for the other shoe to fall and the entire ruse to be blown apart. It is invigorating. If you like you’re class system dramas a lot more cynical than last year’s Roma, this is your movie.
Bong turns the Park home into a character itself, confining a lot of the film there and feeling out every inch of it, swirling his camera over beds and under coffee tables. The lush visuals, the terrific performances and the story all click right into place beautifully. Parasite is almost indescribable in how wonderfully wacky and genre-defying it is. I can only think to compare it to other Bong Joon-Ho movies. Yes, it has the class-warfare of Snowpiercer but Bong knows his way around a wacky family dynamic, giving Parasite the same satisfying characters that made The Host more than a monster movie.
Bong Joon-Ho’s films from Barking Dogs Never Bite to Okja have all found their way on my Best of the Year lists with Snowpiercer topping it in 2016. He has rapidly built a resume as one of the best filmmakers and storytellers working today, voicing a clear vision, unique style and visual imagination that makes each movie a treat. South Korean cinema doesn’t exactly have the distractions that Hollywood does. If things hold true he just might have made the unlikely best movie of this year too with this excellent work of small-scale grand theft filmmaking. Believe the hype, Parasite is ingenious.