My review for Bong Joon Ho’s totally bonkers morality tale about social status and economic disparity can be summed up in a single word: Respect. Once you’ve seen Parasite—and you definitely should—the significance of this singular pronouncement will become vividly clear. Imagine the premise and empathy of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters, but with the genre-defying tone and brash ambition of Jordan Peele’s Us. Such is Parasite, a work of maniacal cinematic genius.
Outrageously funny and thrilling, Parasite is best experienced with as little foreknowledge of the narrative and premise as possible. Which makes it rather difficult to offer a proper review, doesn’t it? Indeed, there was a conversation about movie spoilers at Cannes, with both Quentin Tarantino and Joon Ho writing public letters to the press imploring—Joon Ho uses the word “pleading”—not to give away the late reveals and plot twists in their in-competition films. But this has always been the tension in art criticism: how does one accurately describe and critique not only the art itself, but the experience of the art—its effects and affects, its form and content?
I had mixed feelings about Joon Ho’s previous fantastical sci-fi efforts The Host, Snowpiercer, and Okja mostly due to their outlandish madcap style, as well as their heavy-handed allegorical messages about class divisions and environmental care. So I loved Parasite’s seemingly paradoxical subtlety and showiness, its layers of metaphorical meaning in the midst of mayhem.
With a title like Parasite, one might expect there to be some sort of lurking creature or alien lifeforce, akin to Jessica Hausner’s excellent Little Joe. But Joon Ho abandons the sci-fi genre entirely, anchoring the narrative in down-to-earth circumstances (albeit with signature Joon Ho wackiness and black humor). It’s a tragicomedy, a hilarious horror, and a family drama, all somehow maintaining its integrity. In other words, Joon Ho upends any sense of categorization or what a film is “supposed” to do. It’s absolutely thrilling to watch, mostly due to the suspense and mystery, but also because we can sense that we’re watching something revolutionary unfold before us, that the boundaries and definitions of what cinema can be and do are expanding right before our eyes.
Parasite is about two families and their relationship with one another. The film opens on a family of lower-class misfits: the goofball patriarch Ki-Taek (Song Kang Ho); the sassy mother and hammer throw champion Chung-Sook (Chang Hyae Jin); the college dropout son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo Shik); and the sarcastic art school failure of a daughter, Ki-Jung (Park So Dam). I would say that they struggle to make ends meet, only they don’t seem to be struggling at all; they appear strangely content, resolved to living in a grungy basement apartment where they steal WiFi from neighbors and are routinely pissed on by a drunk passerby. When Ki-Woo gets an opportunity from a wealthy family to serve as a tutor for a high school girl, he takes it, despite not having any credentials for doing so (his sister forges college transcripts for him).
The con is on Parasite’s second family: the Parks, a hyper-wealthy family of four. Ki-Woo tutors the Park’s eldest, the adorable and flirty Da-Hye (Jung Ziso). It’s her mother, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong), who vets Ki-Woo and makes sure her daughter is getting the best educational support. Yeon-kyo is, as one character puts it, “simple,” which is a kind way of saying she’s naïve and gullible. Having sized up the situation, and noticing that the Park’s son, Da-Song (Jung Hyeon Jun) may need some special attention, Ki-Woo gets Ki-Jung hired as an art therapist for the unruly boy. With the two youths embedded in the Park family routine—and getting paid handsomely for their services—it isn’t long before the two family’s lives become entirely enmeshed.
The two families of Parasite are like mirrored images of each other, bizarre doppelgangers living and working in the same house yet separated by economic status and one family’s knowledge of what is really going on behind the scenes. As events begin to spiral out of control and the con takes a totally unexpected direction, the underlying themes provoke all sorts of questions and reflections; even as the film continues to keep you entertained, it also challenges you to think, and think deeply. Parasite is about economics, family structures, art and architecture, education, globalization, Cub Scouts, North Korea, sacred rocks, birthday cake, Native Americans, digital technology, Morse code, plum sauce, climate change, ghosts, and how to find the best available Wifi. As Ki-Woo says repeatedly throughout Parasite, “Wow! So metaphorical!”
After waiting 3+ hours in line, I missed seeing Tarantino’s film at Cannes due to the festival’s unequitable system. There is a hierarchy of press badges which allows those with higher status to essentially cut ahead of the supposed lower-class critics (like myself). None of the “yellow badges” made it inside, despite overcoming and enduring so much just to get to Cannes in the first place. So the irony was not lost on me that my final film of the festival was Parasite, a powerful liberating pushback to such broken hierarchical systems, and certainly a strong contender for the Palme d’Or. Respect, indeed.