Parasite arrives in UK cinemas off the back of loud acclaim – and it’s an accessible, superb piece of moviemaking.
It’s the masterful surety of touch that immediately leaps out in Parasite, the latest movie from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho: the perfect modulation between levity and utter seriousness; between black comedy and cutting social commentary. The director’s movies – notably The Host, Okja and Snowpiercer – have always had some kind of political conscience, but nowhere have Bong’s preoccupations, not to mention his penchant for blending genres to an almost indescribable degree, come together so cleanly. Parasite feels almost flawless.
The story is both magnificent and so meandering that laying it all out would diminish its effect. In essence, it’s about the Kims, a down-on-their-luck family finagling their way into a vastly wealthier household; the crack that opens the door is Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the Kim family’s son, who manages to blag the job of a private tutor for the daughter of Park Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), a rich yet painfully gullible socialite who lives on the other side of the city. Once installed in the Park household, Ki-woo manages to get the rest of his family jobs under assumed names, without Yeongyo or her husband, Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), realising that the new housekeeper, driver and art therapist are all related and almost entirely unqualified for their roles. What happens next is a study in contrasts: between the urbane yet oblivious Parks and the less well-heeled yet deceptively smart Kims; between the Kims’ lives as assorted tutors, drivers and general dogsbodies in the Park house, and their penniless existence in a crummy basement apartment in the city’s lowest recesses.
Bong – who co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-won – plainly enjoys exploring what unites and divides all these wildly disparate characters; how the Park family’s desire for a curated, cosseted and spotlessly clean existence leaves them blissfully ignorant of the private struggles of the people who wait on them hand and foot. This is keenly illustrated in a scene where urbane businessman Dong-ik complains that his new driver, Ki-taek (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), has the distinct smell of the subway about him – as though the mere reminder of his worker’s humble existence is a selfish imposition of some kind. None of this is to say that Parasite is purely a brow-beating tract about class; instead, its barely concealed rage at the cruelty of the wealth divide is simply the engine that drives a fast-moving and unpredictable drama-thriller laced with bitter, sometimes startling dark humour.
Bong’s direction is impeccable, not least in the unfussy yet assured way he lays out the geography of both the city and the Park’s sprawling modernist house, all of which builds to a series of spectacular pay-offs. There are also scenes in Parasite that are as suspenseful as any conventional thriller you could care to name; it says a great deal about the quality of the filmmaking that, at one juncture, it doesn’t seem surprising that the plot looks poised to make a leap into the supernatural, only to swerve back again onto a more grounded but no less discomfiting route.
It would be remiss, though, not to mention the flat-out brilliance of the acting: Park So-dam as Ki-jeong, the Ki-woo’s devious yet likeably sparky sister; Chang Hyae-jin as his deliciously salty, plain-speaking mother; and Lee Jung-eun as the Park’s outgoing and oddly secretive housekeeper. The writing is balanced enough to paint all these characters as both relatable, flawed, yet somehow likeable. Perfectly keyed into an increasingly divided 21st century, Parasite turns the pressing subject of inequality into a mesmerising family drama. It’s a gripping story about a tribe clawing their way up the slippery hill towards prosperity, while the other tribe, comfortably ensconced at the top, remain oblivious to the trouble brewing right beneath their feet.
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