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‘Parasite’ Review: Bong Joon-ho’s Latest Is a Tragicomic Thrill Ride

The hijinks of ‘Home Alone’ meet the absurd comedic sensibilities of ‘Burn After Reading’ meets the dramatic commentary of ‘The Ice Storm.’
Parasite ending
By  · Published on May 24th, 2019

The coming public debate about Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite will not be about whether it is or isn’t a great movie, but about whether it is or is (barely) not a perfect movie. Good luck arguing against its brilliant, inimitable, all-encompassing craftsmanship. The film is laugh-out-loud funny, an astute blend of humanity and absurdity, thrilling until its final depraved moments, a pristinely shot modern architectural feast for the eyes, a razor-sharp socio-economic critique, and a cryptic operatic drama.

Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives in a semi-basement dump with his wife Chung-sook (Hyaejin Chang), daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik). They’re a dry, candid, sarcastic, cohesive family that seems more like a group of good pals than it does a nuclear family unit. But they’re dirt poor. The film opens with Ki-woo discovering that the upstairs Wi-Fi they’ve been bumming suddenly has a security password. Next, we see them menially folding hundreds of pizza boxes in hopes of scrounging up a few extra bucks. It’s that kind of life for Ki-taek and company, but their poverty isn’t a reflection of their intelligence.

If there’s one thing Bong teaches us in the first 30 minutes of this off-the-wall masterwork, it’s that the focal family is a careful, conniving, whip-crack smart crew of loyal kin who genuinely want the best for each other, and are willing to go to great lengths to achieve it. Naturally, they want to break free from their financial scarcity, so early on, they commit themselves to trying.

After Ki-woo’s old friend asks him to pose as a private English tutor to the daughter of an abundantly wealthy family, the ideas being to spark. Ki-woo successfully finds all the right people to help him forge documents, develop an academic sensibility, and look the part of the scholarly persona he’s imitating. He arrives at the sleek, modernist mansion of the girl he’s supposed to tutor in order to interview with her mom, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-Jeong), wife of Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun), the head of a lucrative global IT firm.

Yeon-kyo is a soft, gullible, affluent brand of helicopter parent, deeply troubled and outwardly concerned about any and every possible risk that could hinder her two children from being less than perfect. She’ll do almost anything for them, no matter the cost or degree of excess associated. Ki-woo’s hyper-professional demeanor and clever acting chops sell Yeon-kyo on his supremacy as an English tutor and she hires him right away to come a few times a week. He astutely picks up on her disappointment in not finding an art tutor for her 6-8 year old son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), and plugs his non-existent friend with his sister in mind.

Next thing you know, Ki-jung has transformed into a strict, stern, decisive art theorist and instructor. She plays the part well enough to reshape Da-song from an unruly, reckless child into an observant, respectful student and wows Yeon-kyo in the process. For example, when talking to Yeon-kwo, she uses art philosophy terms she googled before she went in order to interpret the bottom right hand corner of Da-song’s paintings as an expression of past trauma. Whether it’s bullshit or not doesn’t matter because the naïve Yeon-hyo literally gasps and hires her on the spot at an extravagant rate, per Ki-jung’s request.

Bong directs the whole process of the two siblings conning their way into work in the gorgeous Park household with energy and style leading to more than one applause-worthy moment. Everything is quickly and sharply edited, teeming with impressive, geometric cinematography. He reveals just enough to let you in on what’s going on but keeps enough from you to always leave you at the edge of your seat in a state of thrilled delight. It’s Bong’s economical screenwriting and inventive direction that makes Parasite such a triumph, and the plot summary ends here.

If you look at the Parasite poster, nothing makes sense. Out of context, you don’t know who anyone is, what their relations are to each other, or why there are different colored censor bars over their eyes. Moreover, what is that tent in the reflection? Why is that guy heaving a stone out the door? What’s up with those legs coming out from the corner? It makes no sense until you’ve seen the film, at which point it becomes one of the more shrewd, enigmatic examples of poster art in the 21st century. And it speaks volumes to the film’s cryptic sensibilities.

The journey from start to finish is a wild ride, constantly twisting, turning, revealing the unknown, and shifting your perception of what’s happening on screen. And it manages an unbelievable blend of thrills and comedic ecstasies, both physical and verbal. It has the situational disaster comedy of a film like Meet the Parents or Home Alone and the dark, quick-witted dialogic comedy of Burn After Reading or Sideways.

Regardless of how debased or devastating the moment, it’s usually infused with riotous comedy. One of its most memorable shots takes place in the middle of a rainstorm in which all the semi-basement homes are flooding. Ki-jung sits on the toilet topper while literal shit spurts out from the cracks because of the busted pipes, but she’s just happy to be smoking a cigarette. It’s absurd, disgusting, hilarious, and strangely touching. The moment also stands as a prime example of Bong’s unparalleled ability to clearly communicate the absurdity of the human condition and simultaneously draw out the beauty in what it means to be human. There’s something about his take on the absurd aspect that gives hope and a calming sense of respite. It’s comforting to know that life is so ridiculous, unpredictable, and illogical for our main characters. It rids of you feeling alone or singled out, and that goes a long way in a film like this. It’s what leads to the revelatory, humane aspect of the film.

His characters are fully fleshed out. No one is a half-baked, unconsidered flash in the pan; rather, everyone serves a significant purpose in a way that reflects what human community exists for in the first place: to give meaning. One could dig into Bong’s film from the perspective of any four members of the family and glean lucid wisdom unique to what they exemplify and embody. In other words, there’s something for almost everyone to connect to, or feel apart of. There is a particularly approachable humanity for all.

And it doesn’t shy away from social, political, and economic annotation. In fact, stinging capitalist class commentary is central to the film’s thesis. It poses incisive questions about the nature of tiered, innately hierarchical structures devised by a wealth gap that neglects humane treatment and economically viable means of survival. Laced in with the comedy, absurdity, and drama, the critiques find their way into your mind with power and precision, lingering long after the screening has ended.

Otherwise, the stunning cinematography, thorough production design, and symphonic score give even more reason to indulge the film in all of its riches. If we weren’t already confident that Bong was an absolute master of his craft, an auteur in the highest sense, now we can be sure. Parasite is everything one might want out of a movie and more. It surpasses expectations and goes beyond to create new ones. Be prepared to burst into compulsive applause throughout the movie as holding in your excitement will feel unthinkable. Prepare yourself for Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.