Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Jung Ji-so, Jung Hyeon-jun, Lee Jung-eun, Park Myung-hoon, Park Geun-rok, Park Seo-joon
Runing Time: 132 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
If ever a film stood as the ultimate warning against the dangers of job recommendations, it's Parasite. A seemingly qualified candidate is hired, only to turn around and recommend their friend or relative, who in turn hears about another open position that someone they know would be perfect for. So on and so forth. Before long, an entire company, or in this case, an actual household, is overrun by a group of people who are all directly related in some way. Just replace the word "qualified" with "scammer" and you have a vague plot description of the first foreign film to win the Best Picture Oscar. And yet there's so much more, as an innocuous proposition evolves into a massive morality play unfolding over the course of two hours with darkly hilarious thrills and suspense, before making a detour into pure terror for its final act.
Acclaimed South Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho juggles numerous balls in the air, as hardly a minute passes where you don't at least consider that the whole picture could just collapse under the weight of its lofty ambitions. But it never does, continuing to gather steam as it rolls, adding more outlandish and exciting wrinkles to what feels like an international answer to moviegoers complaints that there are no original stories anymore.There's only one Parasite, and the longer you examine all its themes and implications, the harder it becomes to name another film that even slightly resembles it, domestically or abroad.
Its title would seem to say it all, but in this story of a poor family infiltrating the household of a wealthy one by posing as unrelated, but marginally qualified applicants, we're frequently challenged to examine the nature that parasitic relationship that develops by questioning who's really leeching off whom. Complicating matters is that both families seem to exist in a shade of grey, each with as many unlikable qualities as endearing ones. Clueless in some ways while perceptive in others. We laugh with and at both of them until it's evident that the entertainment each provides will have come to a screeching halt, and we're forced to take bets on who will survive. And more importantly, what the definition of survival even is in this scenario.
The Kim family live in a small basement apartment trying to make ends meet with their low-paying jobs as pizza box folders. But when son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-shik) receives an offer from friend and departing university student Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) to take over his job as English tutor to Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the teen daughter of the wealthy Park family, Posing as a college student, Ki-Woo immediately impresses the smitten girl and her nervous, overprotective mother, Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong), who nicknames him "Kevin."
Ki-Woo's master plan is now set in motion, using the new position to help his family infiltrate the Park residence, with each recommending the other for various job openings within the house, all of which are created by their own manipulations. His sister Ki-Jung (Park So-dam) poses an "art therapist" to the Park's hyperactive young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), and after a couple of really clever ruses, Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) get themselves hired to replace Mr. Park's (Lee Sun-kyun) chauffeur and longtime housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), respectively.
With little to no experience, they've found a way to assume these identities and weasel their way into the luxurious, Architectural Digest-ready home of the Park's. But it isn't as if this wealthy, but naive family isn't getting Kim's services in return, as the invaders will soon discover just how far they can take this ruse before being found out, and the potentially dangerous consequences for all involved.
Once the offer is presented to Ki-Woo, it's off to the races and rarely does the film slow down for a beat to even process the wildness about to unfold, so much of its hilarity stemming from the Kim family's dedication to carrying this invasion out with exacting perfection. It's surprise just how cleverly they manage to displace the Park's live-in employees, but the glee they take upon conning these insulated rich folks.
From the second we meet the loud, scheming, abrasive Kims in their basement-dwelling apartment with a view of pedestrians peeing on the sidewalk, they're clearly established as a certain class of family that could only dream of attaining the lifestyle their eventual employers have. It's not necessarily because they're lazy or dumb, as all of them go many steps past merely "playing" the part required for them to gain the Park's acceptance and approval.
That all the Kims actually do the work and are pretty good at it serves to only complicate and challenge viewer expectations. But ultimately they prove incapable of curbing their more leacherous tendencies, arrogantly sinking too far into their own game to see all the potential roadblocks, one of which will eventually undo them. Horrible, but delightfully entertaining, it becomes harder to root against the Kims the more entertaining we realize they are, particularly during a memorable sequence involving the housekeeper's peach allergy. Everything they do is basically awful, but Bong Jonn-ho is so smart that he muddies the waters by making the Park's, if not equally as unlikable, still deeply flawed.
As the naive Mrs. Park, Cho Yeo-jeong gives one of the film's best and most broadly comedic supporting performances as a worrisome young mother too isolated in her enclave of wealth to question anything, or even know that you can. But at least she's involved, which is more than can be said for Mr. Park, so entrenched in his tech company that the quickest solution to any family problem is to throw money at it. Neither are bad people nor horrible parents, just incredibly clueless ones, making them sitting ducks for the Kims, who reside in greyer moral territory as characters.
They're all opportunists, but it's easy to believe Ki-Woo would have somehow found a way into this house with or without his friend's offer. Initially, he's extemely likable, but it's that likability he uses to his and his family's advantage, winning over Mrs. Park as a tutor and her daughter as his girlfriend, whom he steals right from under his friend. A case can be made that of all the Kims, he's the worst, so major credit to Choi Woo-shik for making him appear to be exactly the opposite.
As his sister, Park So-Dam's performance as Ki-Jung (a.k.a art teacher "Jessica") is captivating in the sense that she's the family member, as is commented, who most seems most at home in this rich world. And maybe the only one of the Kims you could imagine believably having that life under different circumstances. It begs the question of why she doesn't, or any of them don't, which is something the movie never runs from, nor pretends to necessarily have the answer to.
As their parents, Song Kang-ho and Jang Hye-jin first seem as if they're being dragged along for the ride, until the layers of their performances within performances start to unspool, particularly the former's as Ki-taek, whose goofy behavior masks a subtly turbulant relationship with his employer based on class and perception. It's reminder that no matter how well the Kims may seem to assimilate into this lifestyle, they'll never be able to shake the literal and figurative stench of their poverty. And the Parks, even unconciously, can't resist reminding them.
Bong Joon-ho's ultimate trick is the film's third-act pivot from extremely dark suburban comedy into pure horror, but its craftmanship comes from a perfectly calibrated tonal shift, with all the seeds previously planted to confirm that was the inevitable destination. It's almost become a cliche to say that a certain setting is a character, but it's rarely been truer than here as an almost agresssively modern house that's all visual artiface--beautifully sterile and open---reveals its hidden depths and secrets, much like the characters sharing space within it.
The film's worldwide appeal is evident in just the strong foothold it's had in the U.S., winning its top cinematic prize and having rabid mainstream audiences lining up to see a subtitled South Korean picture. Much of that stems from so effectively hitting on a universal theme not entirely unfamiliar to each demographic in every nation across the board: class warfare. It's hard to watch without at least considering how American cinema has treated suburban privilege in films like American Beauty and The Ice Storm, or even a tv series such as Mad Men. Most exist in a vacccum unto their own, focusing on how badly the well-off have it, rather than exploring the viewpoint of those looking in from the outside. Parasite is all about how little regard the Kims would have for the characters in them, despite desiring everything their lives entail.