For a career that has spanned two and a half decades, filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has only directed seven full-length feature films and 14 projects in total. His career has time and again proven the adage that less is more, with virtually every feature of his being rock-solid to a masterpiece.
Parasite, his latest, is the perfect culmination of all that has come before. Never one to shy away from difficult material, Joon Ho’s trademark dark humor, tonal shifts, and emphasis on class warfare come together in a movie that is near-flawless in execution.
The story revolves around the generational failures of the Kim family, a family that exists on the lowest rung of society, barely eking out a living doing odd jobs and stealing wi-fi from their upstairs neighbor. Their home is a dingy, subterranean basement apartment, where they can watch drunkards pissing in front of their home from their street-level window, a home that has a tendency to fill with sewage and flood water every time it rains. They are ne’er-do-wells with aspirations of getting out of their squalid life, their saving grace their clear love for one another.
When a job tutoring English to the daughter of a rich family falls into the lap of son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), he sees it as an opportunity to get his entire family in on jobs with the filthy rich but exceptionally gullible Park family. Soon, what starts out as a blackly comedic story of a freeloading family pulling one over on the 1% turns into something entirely different, and far more sinister.
Intrigued? You should be. Parasite won this year’s prestigious Palme d’Or award, making Joon Ho the first Korean director to ever win Cannes’ top prize. Read on for three more reasons to see it when it hits theaters this week.
1. It Becomes Three Different Movies Without Once Losing Momentum
Not every filmmaker can keep continuity through an entire movie without a wobble here or there. It’s near impossible to introduce a major tone shift not once, but twice, in a movie without it falling apart. But that’s exactly what Joon Ho does in Parasite, a movie that begins as a black comedy, becomes a thriller, and finishes as a Shakespearean tragedy.
There aren’t many working directors who have the ability to craft a film with the thinnest and most nuanced of layers like Joon Ho. Every line has another meaning, every gesture reveals another unfolding twist of the story. Like an oyster patiently adding layers of nacre around a grain of sand to create a pearl, Joon Ho patiently builds Parasite around its core grain – a poor family wanting a better life – adding layers of class warfare, the frustrations of a man who feels he’s let his family down, commentary on social hierarchies, the uncertainty of ever fitting into an upper echelon of society, violence, sex, and deep familial love. He does it all so subtly and skillfully that by the time the major twist/reveal happens about halfway through the movie, only then do you realize just how much tension has gradually been building, how may threads he had been braiding to lead to that point. Then with the climactic scene, the entire movie shifts once again in tone and perspective, leaving you aware you’ve somehow swiveled completely around but never felt your chair move.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, both extreme shifts would take an audience out of the movie. In the hands of Bong Joon Ho, it’s almost perfect.
2. It’s A Movie That Actually Says Something Insightful About Class Warfare
Multiple movies this year have attempted to tackle the idea of social hierarchies and the way certain men feel abandoned by society and, cast adrift, turn to violence. Very few of them have actually succeeded in saying anything intelligent – even if they break box office records. But Parasite succeeds on that level because it works from the inside out rather than the outside in.
Other than the Kims and the Parks, there are only a few other players in the movie. The rest of society goes largely unexplored, because it’s not necessary. Everything you need to know about a life of failure and struggle is played out on Ki-taek’s face. Song Kang-ho is transformative as a man slowly waking up from a life-long slumber to fully carry the weight of how much he has failed his family and how little respect others in the world have for him. Every slight, every indignity, every demeaning thing he is forced to do, sometimes because of his own inadequacies but sometimes at the behest of the rich family for whom he works, adds another line to his face. He and his family slowly slip through the cracks of life while the family for which they work remain blithely unaware, completely ignorant of the quiet desperation of the people that make their food, run their errands, clean their house, teach their kids, chauffeur them around every single day.
That’s why it’s so effective. The Parks aren’t overly hateful. Instead, they exhibit the passive cruelty of very rich people who never have to think about the plight of others. Their casual disregard for anything outside their privileged bubble is one of the truest reflections of society. There’s no need for a deliberate antagonist when the tools of a protagonists’ demise are the blind ignorance of the wealthy, the incurious nature of those who could help them, and an unconscious disdain for those of the lower class. A story doesn’t need a mustache-twirling villain when it so realistically addresses the terrifying callousness entitled human nature naturally provides on its own.
3. The Visuals Are Exquisite
In Joon Ho’s visual landscape, there are two worlds: Those who have, and those who have not. The have-nots, i.e. the Kims, operate in a world of decaying gray. Everything about their life is drab, dank, colorless. Gray from their cinderblock walls to the concrete floors, the light, in their life, both literal and metaphorical, is weak. You can practically smell the earthy mold and endless ashtray bottoms in production designer Lee Ha-Jun’s set of the Kims’ apartment, the sour dankness of those who are never fully clean and never fully dry.
But jump to the world of the Parks and it’s a different story. Nothing but sleek lines that seem as though they’ll hold forever, warm, burnished lighting and airy interiors. Theirs is a world drenched by sunlight or comforting interior lighting, far above the problems and the dank air of those living in squalor below. Those who are superior are, quite literally, set above those who are less-than, physically in location and symbolically in color palette and amount of light.
Even in the Parks’ home, there is a literal line between the rich and the poor, the fortunate and the forgotten, drawn by a sliding set of polished wood shelves that hide the gloomy cinderblock underbelly of the sub-basement. It’s explained that the homes of the rich often had sub-basements built into them back when the threat of war with North Korea loomed. Over time, they were abandoned, becoming nothing more than a quirky feature of homes only the very rich could afford – good heavens, it’s not as if they’d ever want to actually use the sub-basement. A haughty dismissal of the same sort of apartment in which the Kims themselves live; the reality of their life a mere footnote in an anecdote the Parks might tell at one of their impromptu, extravagant lawn parties.
Every detail in Parasite is painstakingly set exactly where it needs to be, every thread patiently woven into the larger tapestry. It is rare that I walk out of a movie and don’t find at least one scene or element I would have approached differently. But I can now say Parasite has earned that distinction.
Parasite is in theaters on Friday, October 11. Get tickets now.