Nobody makes movies like Bong Joon Ho. The South Korean auteur has consistently built a reputation of creating wildly entertaining genre films that also provide incisive social commentary, and that continues with his new film, Parasite. From the tonally varied Memories of Murder to the wildly inventive action in Snowpiercer, which starred Chris Evans, Bong has an incredible knack for finding unique ways to upend genre tropes and present a vision that is wholly his own.
And with his latest film, the writer/director flirts with multiple genres in telling a story about the coming together of a rich family and a poor, street-smart family, and taking a perceptive look at class divide. Surprises and tonal shifts abound in a film that can only be described as the ultimate Bong Joon Ho film. Parasite is evidence of a filmmaker in complete control of his story, craft, and vision, resulting in the most absorbing theater experience of the year.
The Kim family lives in a rundown apartment halfway underground, with barely a view of street-level. The father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song, a regular in Bong’s films) and mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) work with their son Ki-woo (Woo-sih Choi) and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park) to fold pizza boxes for lowly wages.
One of Ki-woo’s friends visits to let the family know that he is leaving to study abroad, but he wants Ki-woo to replace him as the tutor for the supremely wealthy Park Family’s daughter. Ki-woo lacks credentials, but his friend simply encourages him to fake it, saying that “rich people are really gullible.” With a counterfeit degree supplied by Ki-jung, Ki-woo goes to meet the oblivious Park mother, Yeon-kyo (Yeo-Jeong Jo), who doesn’t question a thing.
At the end of the first tutoring lesson, she mentions her young son needing an art teacher. Ki-woo has just the right person in mind: Ki-jung. The Kims quickly con their way into the Park family household, each family member finding a role to play in working for the Parks. It’s almost too easy for them. But the family isn’t prepared for the secrets hidden within the Park home, which could potentially ruin everything they’ve been doing. And thus begins the many narrative and tonal turns that Parasite has to offer.
Parasite begins with a darkly comedic tone, as the Kim Family begins to infiltrate the Park’s exquisitely designed home, and their various interactions with Yeon-kyo are amusing in the effortless way they are all able to deceive her. As the film begins to uncover its secrets, the tone undeniably shifts, but it’s near impossible to pinpoint exactly when the tonal shifts happen, because Bong’s incredibly skilled having his narrative flow seamlessly from one tone to the next.
Bong’s screenplay (co-written with Jin Won Han) immediately lets us in on the family dynamic of the Kims, and the co-writers’ strong sense of who these characters are keeps us thoroughly engaged as the Kim Family finds themselves in increasingly different and dangerous situations.
And the subtle look at the specific differences between the rich and the poor are firmly embedded within the dialogue, cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong’s exquisite framing, and the mise-en-scene. All of this helps to convey Bong’s vision, with nary a hint of heavy-handed exposition or narrative hand-holding.
Bong carefully orchestrates Parasite with such a sure hand that you don’t even think about how well it’s working for you, because you’re simply too engrossed in his storytelling. Camera moves and framing convey just as much as what characters say to each other, and Jinmo Yang’s precise editing is balletic in the way it gracefully pieces together the film’s various tonal puzzle pieces.
It would take far too long to praise every performance in Parasite. Suffice it to say that every actor breathes believable life into their characters, without painting them in black-and-white depictions of the rich and poor. Everyone feels exceedingly human. There really isn’t a clear standout performance, because they are all so great in their specific roles. It’s a phenomenal ensemble.
The only way to categorize Parasite is as a Bong Joon Ho film. It doesn’t fit into one specific genre or one specific cinematic influence. But rather, it is a wholly unique creation made by a filmmaker who has mastered and perfected his style. Cinema is alive and well, as long as Bong Joon Ho keeps making movies. And Parasite just might be his masterpiece.
Parasite is rated R, and it is now playing in theaters.
All images courtesy of NEON.