The mysterious Mr. Bong Joon-ho gives us in Parasite a razor sharp fable about class conflict that is part dark comedy, part thriller, part horror movie and part tragedy, and that is also the most enjoyable movie of the year. There are extreme sports that elicit less adrenaline than Parasite.
Kim Ki-Taek (Song Kan-ho), his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and his children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ji-jeong (Park So-dam) live in a miserable basement in a poor neighbourhood in Seul, where they spend their hours folding pizza cardboard boxes and looking out for the local drunkard who often urinates outside their window. One afternoon, an old school-friend comes to visit Ki-woo and asks him to substitute him as English tutor for Da-hye, the eldest child of the wealthy Park family. That same friend gifts the Kim family a green rock that is supposed to bring fortune. For the Kim siblings, who are ambitious and fiercely intelligent, this rock is both a sign and a licence, and the small summer job a slit through which they will attempt to slip all the clan. From here on (and we’ve been through scarcely fifteen minutes of film), we will enter a mirror labyrinth full of trapdoors where Bong Joon-ho will fool us with the virtuosity of a seasoned magician.
For those who aren’t familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s cinema, this will be an ideal entry point. For those who are already acquainted, this will be the main course in the already generous feast the director has produced. Not only this South Korean filmmaker has an extremely personal vision and the talent to realize it, but he is also one of those artists who arrives at their craft with a desire to tear down walls and rebuild. The walls he is most preoccupied with, are those of genre. If already with The Host – a monster movie which is also a political thriller, comedy and family drama – the critics struggled to classify Joon-ho, with Parasite the director has challenged himself to go to the edge and then jump.
The film starts bubbly, like a social comedy, but that humour slowly but steadily becomes darker and darker, and we keep laughing just as – if not more – keenly; and then, suddenly, someone cuts the lift’s cables and we are falling dizzily into a sort of horror. But then we open our eyes and we find ourselves in scenes that have a tension, a hold-your-breadth-edge-of-your-seat quality usually reserved for the Mission Impossible franchise. And there are still tones and emotions that Joon-ho has stored for us. And what is most impressive is how seamless it all is, how smooth the surface of this film, which makes it impossible to notice when and how it was that our heart started beating to another tune. There’s people who can’t manage to master a single genre, but Bong Joon-ho braids them with the skill of a composer weaving themes in a symphony.
And speaking of music, the music by Jung Jae-il follows the serpentine path of the plot with a faithfulness that leaves one stunned.
Parasite is not all twists and turns, though. Its core is pristine, heavy and it’s burning. Rage over economic inequality is the engine that brings to life this marvellous machinery. There’s a brilliant scene where the Kims have to leave the Parks house during a storm, at night, and they must run across the city to get home. This journey is literally a descent into hell. The camera shows them diminutive, making their way down through a landscape that changes like the earth’s strata, going from a gentle blue night to a red neon light ocean of poorly lit slums. Upon arrival, they realize their house is flooded with sewer water and they pointlessly try to salvage something from their belongings. While a defeated Ji-jeong decides to sit atop a filth-spewing toilet, up in their heights, the Parks enjoy the rain falling on their beautifully illuminated garden, safe inside their mansion built by a famous architect.
But Boong Joon-ho is not a Manichaean. The Parks are not evil. In fact, as admitted by the Kims, they’re nice people. “If I were rich, I would be nice too”, says Chung-sook: “Money is like an iron, it smooths all wrinkles.” Because of their position, the Parks can´t help but talking about others as mere objects in a world made for them. Smell, for example, is a powerful element in the film. Mr. Park tells his wife that Mr. Kim’s scent annoys him and she inquires: “How does he smell?”, “You get that smell in the subway sometimes”, he replies. “It’s been so long since I rode the subway”, she says pensively. From this moment on, each slight contraction of the nostrils will have the terrible weight of a slap across the face. And in spite all of this pushes us to the side of the Kims, they’re not “good” people, strictly speaking. They’re selfish and manipulative and they don’t seem to care much about the people they trample – who, by the way, are also poor.
Parasite is also Bong Joon-ho’s best movie technically speaking. Here, with the help of cinematographer Hong Kyun-pyo and editor Yang Jin-mo, the director guides us through the corridors of his story with a brain surgeon’s pulse, and from the get-go is clear that every single image and movement counts. During any conversation, for instance, we have the classic shot/reverse-shot, but when something crucial is said or left unsaid, the camera highlights it with an elegant panning or tilting. These minute formal choices prepare us for what’s to come. Just as Hitchcock, Joon-ho knows that suspense in cinema must always come from what is seen, not from what is said. Also like Hitchcock in Rear Window, Joon-ho had his own world built for the movie. Production designer, Lee Ha-joon designed and built both the Kim’s hovel (and entire street) and the Park’s dream house.
Parasite is such a great film, so rabidly funny and so tragically frightening, so original and ambitious in its imagining and so perfect in its execution, that I could go on raving about it for days. I will limit myself to saying one more thing: the story starts with Ki-woo and Ji-jeong looking for an open wifi they can use freely, therefore planting the seed that gives sense to the movie and its title, but once the seed germinates, the plant shows a complex pattern. There’s not one clear parasite, but many. Like a chain of leeches, they’re all sucking blood, and the film’s conceptual triumph is showing which leech is fatter and with whose blood.