Joon-ho outdoes himself with ‘Parasite’
Those who seek out global cinema have most likely encountered the name Bong Joon-ho. The South Korean filmmaker has been defying expectations with each and every contribution. Starting in 2003 with the serial-killer thriller “Memories of Murder,” Joon-ho takes each and every film into wonderfully uncharted terrain.
He has taken on monster movies (“The Host”), sci-fi dystopia (“Snowpiercer”), and even family-friendly (-ish) films (“Okja”), each one ambitiously swinging for the fences and typically knocking it out of the park.
And as the Cannes Film Festival audience recognized earlier this year with “Parasite,” by bestowing upon him this year’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, he still has plenty left in his quiver.
With “Parasite,” Joon-ho has managed to not merely outdo himself, but also set the bar on which all 2019 films will be measured, with yet another multi-hyphenated genre film that is seldom what is seems, yet flawlessly steers along roads that reward viewers at every sharp turn.
It’s best to hop on for the ride without a map, meaning the less you know about it, the richer the experience. So, for the sake of not spoiling much, just know that “Parasite” follows a South Korean family – father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) – who are living an almost subterranean existence. Their apartment’s only natural light is just above street level, with views limited to passing drunks looking for a private area to pee.
Each and every room is packed with randomly collected objects that help them live day to day: flat pizza boxes that they fold to earn a pittance, cramped corners where they must sit for free Wi-Fi. A chance encounter with Ki-woo’s former school friend brings the young man a potential tutoring position for a local teenage girl from an insanely wealthy family.
After Ki-woo’s sister forges a few documents that make him look more credentialed than he is, he interviews with the family matriarch, Mrs. Park (played by Cho Yeo-jeong). She immediately takes to the young man, and is soon touring him around their palatial estate, which includes her rambunctious young son, Da-song (played by Jung Hyun-jun). The boy is a blizzard of energy, but Mrs. Park is convinced he is an artistic genius, only needing to channel his energy and potential.
Ki-woo mentions he knows a respected art therapy tutor, and the following days send his sister, Ki-jung, to the residence. After both have successfully gained the Park family’s trust, they all engineer a scheme to have the entire family hired in various roles, including dad as the chauffeur and mom as the housekeeper. None of them have the slightest qualifications for their new roles, but each is capable of faking it until they make it.
It’s a funny, insightful commentary on classism and social structure, and all that takes place within just the first half-hour of the film. For seasoned filmgoers who think they can navigate the twists and turns left in the remaining running time, you have a job awaiting you in Vegas.
Joon-ho and co-writer Han Jin-won cram the film with far more than the obvious commentary, and our allegiance to who the real titular “parasites” are will be undermined and called into question many times over.
But “Parasite” is far more than just attempting to pull the narrative rug out from under its audience. The film crafts each character with such care that none fall into the normal caricatures one might expect of people in wealth or poverty. And just as he has done with the script, Joon-ho manages to excel with his direction. He balances everything with the skill of a high-wire walker, capable of shifting tone or mood without losing a step.
I am certain the thought of entering a subtitled Korean film dealing with class divides may not sound like the ideal movie night for many, but choose to avoid “Parasite” at your own peril. You will forgo perhaps one of the most daring, stunning and eminently watchable films of this year. And if you do go, just remember to reveal as little as possible about it to allow others to take its wild ride.