‘Parasite’ is a must-see film

By Bill Taylor, Staff Writer

Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” has been met with the kind of rapturous reception generally afforded to royal weddings or new popes. It won the Cannes Film Festival’s highest honor after a rare unanimous decision by the jury, sold out its entire first week of showings in New York and is on track to be the first South Korean film to be nominated for an Oscar. That kind of praise seems like it’s bound to oversell even the best film, but “Parasite” manages to live up to it anyway.

The Kim family is very poor indeed. Barely making a living by folding pizza boxes, they jump at the opportunity when their son’s friend offers him a job as a tutor for the wealthy Park family. The son forging a college degree to get the job is just the start of an elaborate con, where he gets his sister a job with the family as an “art therapist,” then the father as a chauffeur, and then the mother as a housekeeper. Things start to go pear-shaped from there.

The first third of “Parasite” is practically an “Ocean’s” movie in how it details the con in action, with elaborate phony backstories and a lot of exploiting the weaknesses of those who are already working for the Parks. It’s got a killer wit to go along with the breezy approach, with lots of hilarious, mean-spirited jabs at the gullible rich family. However, that all comes crashing down with a suspense sequence as nail-biting as anything in the last decade, and it rarely lets up after that.

If it sounds like I’m dancing around elements of this film, it’s because I am. This is a film full of surprises that are best discovered while watching the film. These surprises aren’t just twists for some empty shock value, each one fundamentally rewrites and deepens the movie even as it leaves the viewer in the dark about what comes next. What starts as a comedy becomes more of a tragedy with each unexpected turn.

Even if “Parasite” isn’t necessarily the best film of the year, it’s definitely the best-constructed. The script could be taught in film schools as an example of how to set up and pay off; no detail in the film is arbitrarily chosen, it all comes back in one way or another. Bong is similarly rigorous about the visuals, with the geography of the rich family’s house being so clearly communicated that the viewer knows every inch of it even before people need to start finding places to hide in it.

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    Bong’s best-known film to American audiences is “Snowpiercer,” and while this ostensibly takes place in the real world, it shares some of that film’s cartoon-like aspects. Characters take slapstick pratfalls even as things get serious, and the amount of near-misses when characters almost get caught sneaking around reaches Looney Tunes proportions. In the end, “Parasite” is just a particularly grim farce, like a Marx brothers movie if the Marx brothers were stabbing each other.

    “Snowpiercer” also used its bleak sci-fi backdrop to tell a fairly simple story about the rich keeping the poor down. That kind of class commentary carries over to this, with its very pointed message about the lengths to which the poor will go to be wealthy, even at the expense of their fellow men. It’s reminiscent in more than one way to Jordan Peele’s “Us,” another thriller enacting a bloody battle between the haves and the have-nots, but Peele is driven by rage while Bong has made something more melancholic than angry.

    Even more than Peele, Bong has crafted a societal critique into fantastic entertainment, leaving the viewer laughing and gasping in the face of wealth inequality. “Parasite” has just as much to offer the purely entertainment-minded viewer as it does the high-minded scholar. Believe the hype.

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