Bong Joon-ho has been one of the biggest names in world cinema for two decades now. The Korean writer-director quickly garnered acclaim for his darkly comic style and punchy social commentary, a style that he has spent the last decade applying to blockbuster filmmaking in the form of 2013’s sci-fi action flick “Snowpiercer” and 2017’s action-adventure film “Okja.”
Bong has found varying degrees of success with these more bombastic English-language films, but the lessons he’s learned from them are on display in his Palme d’Or-winning “Parasite.” Despite returning to a modest budget and a fully Korean cast, the film features more twists and turns than any popcorn thriller, and Bong orchestrates enough heart-stopping set pieces to make Christopher Nolan blush.
The film follows a family living in squalor in Korea. They are quite literally at the bottom of the social class staircase, living in a semi-basement apartment at the very back of a cramped neighborhood. The opening shot stares through their window, at the sunshine at the far end of the street before descending to reveal Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), the son, struggling to access the upstairs neighbor’s Wi-Fi. Even in their cramped, dirty, dingy living space, the literal reach for standard 21st century amenities is still required. When Ki-woo’s college friend Min-hyuk (Seo-joon Park) comes to bid farewell before he leaves to study abroad, he recommends that Ki-woo replace him as the tutor for the daughter of the Parks, a wealthy family living across town.
Ki-woo takes his friend’s advice, meets with the Park family, and quickly finds himself hired as the new English tutor. Once he’s employed, he systematically aids his sister, father and mother in infiltrating the Park family’s service, too. The specifics of this, and how the plot completely unravels, is best left to the film itself.
“Parasite” works as an English title, for how Ki-woo’s family leeches off the Park family, but our main characters are even more than that. They’re impoverished dopplegangers, yet they exhibit skills and intelligence that the Parks never do. In a different set of social circumstances, one unbound by the confines of capitalism, they would be flourishing, working both harder and smarter, as well as kinder. Ki-woo’s mother, Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), remarks at one point that, “If I had all this money, I’d be a nice person, too! Even nicer!” But under capitalism, she and her family are pushed to ruthlessness, even towards those as poor as them… and worse.
On a technical level, the film is flawless. The camera glides effortlessly, rising up with Ki-woo from street level to the elevated property of the Park mansion. The open, bright interiors are shot with a comfort and cleanliness that perfectly contrasts with Ki-woo’s apartment, and the color palette is rich and sharp. Editor Jinmo Yang seamlessly keeps all the moving pieces from colliding into one another, and Jaeil Jung’s music is fittingly operatic as Bong operates like the composer at the head of a finely tuned orchestra.
“Parasite” has been hailed as not only the best film of the year, but one of the best films of the decade. The hype is rightfully earned. It’s the best film out of Korea since 2016’s “The Handmaiden,” and it perfectly intertwines Bong’s socially critical sensibilities with a knockout ensemble performance and a mind-bending plot.
Films like this don’t come around very often, especially on the big screens in the United States. As “Parasite” launches its limited release this weekend, it’s already setting box office records and continuing to drum up Academy Award buzz.
Don’t get left behind.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been writing for Inside the Film Room since August 2019; he was named Senior Writer in January 2020. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."