Of the people I saw Parasite with, one immediately contextualized it with a historical novel she read, while another declared that it made him quite happy, and then he dreamed about it that night. Meanwhile, it scared the bejesus out of me and made me feel like a dumb idiot. In the best possible way… If writer/director Bong Joon-Ho has a trademark, this collection of disparate reactions is precisely what it looks like.
Parasite is described as a black-comedy/thriller, yet both genres are somehow emphatically rightly and astoundingly wrongly applied here. It is also somehow hyper-specific to the singular experience of socioeconomic issues in Korea and bloated with universal messages like a tick drunk on blood. Even the film’s one-word name contains multitudes, begging for an argument about whether the dispassionately evil rich or the desperate poor more embody the titular creature.
A plot synopsis has to stop short of spoilers, so this is gonna sound like a stale take on a comedy of manners, but I promise it ain’t. One by one, the impoverished Kim family infiltrates the lives of the wealthy Park family. Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) cons Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong) into paying him to tutor her daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). He then spins a lie to open the way for his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam) to provide total nonsense “art therapy” to Yeon-kyo’s son, Da-song. A bit of conniving gets their father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), installed as the new driver for Yeon-kyo’s husband, Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun). The Kims then use biological warfare to oust the Park’s current housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun), and install their matriarch, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) in the role. That’s when Parasite goes from classist shenanigans to brutal parable.
The most delightful parts of any Bong Joon-Ho movie come when scenes occupy two violently opposite thematic spaces at the same time. The biggest laugh in Parasite comes during the most horrific moment. Some of the biggest insights are delicately hidden in the corner of a wide shot while someone in the frame literally declares “This is so metaphorical.” This is cinema as surprise, demanding the attention of audiences less with plot details and more with presentation.
More than ever, the bassline of much modern art is thumping and pulsating with a fury about inequality. Often, that sound gets understandably but simplistically distilled into “rich bad, poor good” messaging. Parasite absolutely defies a quick synthesizing of its message. This is not borne of laziness or imprecision but the exact opposite. Bong Joon-Ho drives home points on everything from the dangers of falsely attributing kindness to rich people who simply aren’t overtly cruel to the way in which the poor step on the hands of their peers once they advance one rung up the social ladder.
Loads of others smarter than me arrived at a conclusion regarding the title far easier and faster than I did, but realizing Parasite refers to capitalism itself is one of those glorious moments only art from a master like this can provide.
Grade = A