'Parasite' is a wickedly sharp black comedy about class

Oct 26, 2019 at 4:17 pm
click to enlarge Ki-jung Kim (So-dam Park) and Ki-woo Park (Woo-sik Choi) in Parasite. - Courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment
Courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment
Ki-jung Kim (So-dam Park) and Ki-woo Park (Woo-sik Choi) in Parasite.

Rated: R
Run-time: 132 minutes
The line between comedy and horror is as thin as the edge of a chef’s knife in Parasite, South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s (The Host) wickedly clever and extraordinarily sharp new thriller — a lacerating satire of the endless class war between the comfortable and desperate, which cuts deeper into the subject than a thousand editorial think-pieces ever could.

The perpetually struggling Kim family subsist in a cramped, dingy basement apartment, where the living room windows give a worm’s eye view of a back street, where a local drunks are in the habit of relieving themselves on the curb. Layoffs and a string of failed business ventures have left the Kims deep in debt, with dim prospects and a stolen neighbor’s Wi-Fi signal that only really works on the toilet. The desperate quartet barely scrapes by, doing low-wage gigs, like folding boxes for a pizza takeout, until son Ki-woo’s (Woo-shik Choi) high school classmate Min (Seo-joon Park) makes a tantalizing offer. Min is leaving for college abroad, but he wants his friend to take over his cushy, lucrative job as private English tutor for the teen daughter of a successful video game company executive.

After inventing a resume, and forging some official documents with the help of his crafty sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park), the poor boy nails the interview and gains entrance to the luxurious lifestyle of the Park family. Their mini mansion, while spacious and elegant by overcrowded Seoul standards, also resembles a concrete fortress, complete with electronically controlled iron gates and a network of surveillance cameras, serving to keep the residents locked in almost more effectively than keeping strangers out.

Calling himself “Kevin” to reflect his glamorous, fraudulent education in America, Ki-woo swiftly begins to ingratiate himself to the gullible Parks, winning the favor of Mom (Yeo-jeong Jo) and exciting the overactive hormones of his young teen student Da-Hye (Ji-so Jung). Having gained the well-off clan’s trust (and a fat paycheck), Ki-woo seizes the opportunity to push his sister, who has no qualifications, as an art teacher and therapist for the Parks’ little boy, who is a bit of a holy terror, running around the house in a Native American headdress, peppering everyone and everything with Nerf arrows. Soon, the Kim kids conspire to get their parents hired as well, which comes at the expense of the existing staff, but the temptation to step over anyone on the way to the brass ring is too irresistible for such concerns.

Eventually, the two families have become deeply entwined, forming an increasingly symbiotic and intimate relationship, though the web of deceptions supporting the whole setup begins to sag under the weight of lies, eventually unraveling in startling, deeply upsetting ways. To reveal more of the plot would betray the intricate structure of surprises and shocks that Bong and co-writer Jin Won Han have built. What begins as a fairly breezy family farce gradually evolves into a haunted house movie filled with jump scares and violent outbursts, but every escalation of tension feels earned.

Though the wealthy Parks are snobby and oblivious, they are still likable, and fully rendered personalities, just as human as the scheming protagonists. The depth of emotion in the uniformly great performances of the cast flesh out characters that could easily have been cartoons, and helps support the metaphorical weight the story places on their backs. Bong has layered every beautifully rendered shot with meaning and symbolism, some of it likely lost to cultural nuances, but still potent enough to convey the themes with an acidic clarity that burns to the bone.

In this darkly poetic vision, desire, greed and tribalism will drag us all down into the cellar if we can’t find room in our hearts for something better. It is, however, hard to imagine any time soon that we will see a better, more sustained act of cinematic perfection than Parasite.

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