Parasite is the very definition of a good movie. Challenging, funny, brutal, entertaining, and expertly assembled. Few movies strike this perfect balance.
How do you know when you are watching a really good movie? It is that shiver which crawls up your spine. That subtle chuckle to yourself about a clever idea or concept. It is having your eyes so wide open they dry out but you can’t blink or you’ll miss something extraordinary - even if it is something that brings you pleasure, or pain.
Parasite is one of those good movies. It is a movie which gives you the chills because of how savage it is. It is a movie with ingenious plot you can’t help but be impressed by. If it was a plate of food, you couldn’t stop eating it because it was so satisfying. Well, maybe I am over exaggerating a bit. The point is, Parasite checks all the boxes we would expect for a film which many people have called the best one of the year so far. After seeing the film myself, I can say it lives up to those expectations.
Yes, it is a foreign film. Yes, you will need to read subtitles. Those two facts will probably turn off a significant portion of the movie-viewing public. But in my experience, foreign films have a distinct advantage over Hollywood releases, even indie films. The stories they tell are different than what we are used to seeing. They come from a place where society has developed along a different path. What that means is places like South Korea approach their film making differently than we do here. Every now and then a film comes along where the story appeals more broadly than what may have been originally intended. Parasite is one of those films.
Director Bong Joon-ho explained that he originally developed the film to discuss an idea he thought was unique to South Korea, but audiences around the world have responded to it well. Bong’s filmography has often studied class relations, the impact of wealth and industry on society. Those ideas are universal, but with Parasite he has given audiences something even more recognizable - realism. Many of Bong’s films have all had an element of fantasy or science fiction. Otherwise he has focused on immaculate dramas. In that framework, it was easy to pass over some of his ideas. Parasite is crafted in such a way you can’t excuse away any of his poignant observations.
Parasite may be a drama with limited scope, but it is simultaneously a horror movie, an epic film, a comedy, even a revenge thriller. It builds on Bong’s strengths to create something which is captivating not just in the sense of execution and writing (which have always been among Bong’s most consistent qualities), but also in tone, and approachability. It invites you into its realm with comedy, but while it reaches out and beckons you forward, it bites your hand off in a fierce show of defiance.
The film starts off as we are introduced to a poor family who is struggling to survive. Mother, father, daughter, son - they are all out of work, living in the basement of a dilapidated building surrounded by trash (and public urinators). The son, Ki-woo, stumbles upon a lucrative job when his friend provides a recommendation to a wealthy family.
Ki-woo is hired by the family to become their daughter’s English tutor, but that isn’t enough for him. He soon finds a way to trick the family into hiring his sister as an art therapist for the wealthy family’s troubled young son. In turn, Ki-woo’s sister works her own magic to get her father hired as the wealthy family’s chauffeur, and eventually the mother gets hired as the maid. Having tricked their way into lucrative jobs, the family grows complacent, only to have a startling discovery threaten to ruin everything.
What makes Parasite so interesting is, for lack of a better word, it manipulates its audience in the same way the poor family manipulates the wealthy one. At first, Bong makes us feel sorry for them. The film is comical, but in an endearing way. We see the family wallowing in their own misery. But as their fortunes change, we see their demeanor change as well. They become ruthless and cold. Initially, the audience is caught up in the excitement. We can’t help but be caught up in their motivation to make their lives better, even if they are going about it in unscrupulous fashion. Likewise, despite being taken advantage of, the film makes it difficult to feel sorry for the wealthy family.
The way the film makes you feel differently about something compared to what you might expect is what makes Parasite a great film, and speaks to Bong’s talents as a filmmaker. He has a history of subverting not only his audience’s expectations, but also the qualities we associate with the very film genres he utilizes. Parasite is a satire, but the film’s most ridiculous moments are somehow also its most realistic. Likewise, he makes safe moments dangerous ones. Terrible things happen when the characters should feel the most secure. All of this leads to a film which is unexpected. The twists and turns are top-notch. Parasite never lets its audience become too comfortable.
But the film has a reason to create an uneasy feeling beyond simply surprising the audience. Parasite is a film with some hard truths to deliver. Below the film’s entertaining antics is a foundation based on wealth inequality and it calls out the often hypocritical behaviors associated with modern capitalist societies. It shows us the inability of people to help out others who are in need, even within the same socioeconomic group. It shows how society values employment over actually caring about the well-being of its workforce. And above all, the film criticizes our fascination with money above all else. The poor family demeans themselves, cheats, breaks the law, and causes harm to others for the monetary benefits of themselves. Likewise, the wealthy family only seems to live for their own pleasure and convenience. These are ideas we may have seen before in cinema, but brought forward in a new, and intriguing way.
What Parasite starts off as and what the film ends up as are two different things. The beginning beckons you in, soothes you as it rallies for the improvement of characters who are living in tough times. But the plot contorts itself, becomes jagged and rough. Instead of smooth sailing, it becomes shocking and thrilling. What makes Parasite a good movie is not just the excellence of its plot, but also the excellence in its direction, production, and acting. In all other attributes, the film remains impressively consistent. Bong Jong-Ho’s direction is crisp, precise, and thoroughly modern. The production brings it a feel of a larger movie - the universality of a blockbuster. It certainly earns its place towards the top of everyone’s best movie of the year lists.
What's Bad: My only gripe is I didn't like the second half of the film as much as the first half as the film becomes more allegorical.