We can’t spoil the movie, critics tweeted after Parasite first premiered at the Cannes Festival, where it subsequently won the Palme d’Or. Don’t spoil the ending, Film Comment began in its cover feature of the film for the Sept/Oct issue. PLEASE don’t ruin the movies for others, Brian of IFFBoston implored to a packed screening last week at the Brattle. I have no intentions of breaking the silence, even though I firmly stand on the belief that a film’s strength shouldn’t solely rely on story (and Parasite surely doesn’t). But, as a warning, the spoilers sorta begin from the second half down to the last batshit-glory scene, and I do intend to refer some of those scenes to the grander themes at hand*.
With a huge part of the film under voluntary redaction, it seems almost simple for the review to just encourage the rest of this year’s releases to go home and rest for the holiday season† (“Farewell, Marriage Story! End of the road, biographical retelling! Please no more of that, ostentatious book adaptation.”). Truly and brashly, Parasite is going to be the best film of the year. Foreshadowing frame precision, a moral Venn diagram that plants the good and bad/audience and characters in respective circular segments, lightning-quick mood switches: these aren’t unfamiliar elements from veteran South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who has celebrated past international success with the dystopian train thriller Snowpiercer and the GMO depress-fest Okja, with the addition of homegrown victories like The Host and Memories of Murder. In addition, the majority of Parasite‘s cast has worked in Korean horrors that have implicated themselves in family, Japanese colonialism, and classism (Train to Busan, The Silenced, and The Concubine tend to bounce in and out of Netflix’s available collection, if you’re looking for a one-night thrill). How Parasite would fare wasn’t going to be based on the final product of the cast n’ crew, but on the right outlets it’ll take for more people to see the light.
The glazed appearance of relative normalcy is reminiscent of last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters. But instead of a heartwarming addendum on the definition of family, a singular motivation ($$) propels the Kim family to devious measures when Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is recommended as a tutor for Da-hye, the daughter of the wealthy Parks. Through a chain of once-innocent but primarily nefarious means, the Parks employ Ki-woo’s poverty-ridden family, unaware of their relations to each other. The Kims are comprised of Ki-woo, bullshitting art therapist/sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam), patriarch and driver Ki-taek (long-time Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho), and mother Jang Hye-jin (Kim Chung-sook), whose last recruitment as the housemaid tips over a domino unbeknownst to either family.
It’s laughter for the first hour, mostly at the expense of the Parks’ gullibility and their glorification of America (the latter deserves more discourse than it seems at surface level). When the Spoilers begin, Bong’s effortlessly rapid button-pushing in emotion and comedy has the audience gasping for the next chuckle or surprise waiting in the shadows. Every character invokes the exact response that never teeters on being too sympathetic or hate-inducing: Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) is wide-eyed and endearing, Ki-jung’s wits are hilarious and harsh, and Ki-woo’s bumbling good nature represents the heart of the family, even if somewhat hardened.
However, Song’s performance as Ki-taek surpasses the conman personality into a terrifying determination backed by an unspoken, though clear, desire. In the beginning of the film, the family is folding pizza boxes together for a shabby paying gig when the street fumigation starts to permeate their apartment. Ki-taek insists on leaving the window open, taking advantage of the free extermination of their own household bugs. While the rest of his family struggles to continue, Ki-taek continues to fold with an expression that suggests a history of broken dreams and unfathomable boundaries (or so it may be). This moment happens approximately four times in the movie, and every time, it’s a damning moment that sets apart a Before and After within a scene.
Creds also go to Hong Kyung-pyo, director of photography and another seasoned colleague of Bong’s. The visual contrast between our occupants is striking; while the Kims live in a cluttered ground-level subbasement, sunbeams and glossed wooden stairs occupy the Parks’ otherwise modest residence. The urban eeriness can be due to how the Kims’ crookedness can creep through the open air and around sharp corners of the architecture. The balance of power shifts between the families, and if the situation itself doesn’t reveal the opponent’s upper hand, the shots that display the distance between characters (note how the bay windows separate Mrs. Park and Moon-kwang, the original housemaid, in two different scenes) or the picturesque motions during a monologue certainly help.
South Korea already locked Parasite in as their Oscars entry for Best Foreign Film, making it a strong contender as the country’s first win in the category. However, a righteousness will surmount from Song Kang-ho’s possible nomination for Best Actor (though it almost feels criminal to think that his competition may include Adam Sandler but I shall! not! judge!). The buzz around this crafty film is well redeemed by the end; as tensions self-implode and tragedy begins to seep, Parasite will leech onto you like you’re made of honey.
*There are a couple of spoilers-lite here, but they aren’t necessarily spoilers until you’ve seen this film, in which case, they aren’t spoilers anymore!
† I’m half-kidding!! Please go watch movies, any and all.
dir. Bong Joon-ho
Opens in theaters on October 18 – check it out at Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner!