**** out of ****
(for strong language, some violence and sexual content)
Released: November 8, 2019
Runtime: 132 minutes
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-sik, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Jang Hye-jin, Lee Jeong-eun, Jung Ji-so
Now available to stream on Hulu.
Winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Think of this as a Jordan Peele movie for South Korea.
In the same spirit as Peele’s Get Out and Us, and with the same provocative depth, writer / director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite uses the suspense thriller genre (punctuated by elements of horror) to make a statement about where our society is right now, rebuking the long-held systemic structures that have gotten us here.
And like Peele’s piercing parables, this ain’t no woke diatribe. Bong doesn’t take the obvious route of a populist screed against the elites. With brazen, brutal honesty, the South Korean auteur finds both sides complicit in our cultural divide.
Set largely in the house of an affluent family, this disturbing dark satire pits the hired help against the privileged wealthy. At first blush, it appears that the title Parasite refers strictly to the poor working class, and that Cockroach could’ve easily been used as well (particularly given the film’s pointed references to that scavenging insect).
But as the film unfolds, it becomes clear just how far-reaching the implications of Parasite are. Both classes – rich and poor alike – feed off each other in a vicious cycle that dehumanizes both hosts.
The parasite metaphor (rather than the cockroach) is where the film is at its most insightful and its most courageous. “Cockroach“ would’ve been the easy angle to take, utilizing a simple revenge-driven binary, but it symbolizes only one side of the equation.
“Parasite,” however, impeaches both sides, not just the rich and elite, and is a call to responsibility for each class to rise above their stations – i.e. the challenges of poverty on one side, the privileges of prosperity on the other – to find their shared humanity rather than continuing to feed off the other. Doing the latter, as Bong Joon-ho’s celebrated masterpiece shows, is killing us.
The ingenuity of the script’s twists and turns are brilliantly conceived, especially with the unpredictable reveal that comes halfway through, as are other subtle yet adeptly considered visual symbols. The centerpiece house, too, is a marvel of purposeful production design, as is how Bong and his technical collaborators (cinematographer and editor especially) utilize the space to Hitchcockian intensity.
The characters are equally comical and cruel in their selfishness (pitched by a superb ensemble worthy of their Screen Actors Guild “Best Cast” honor), each justifying their egocentric narcissism to the point of moral oblivion.
The devious cons of the lower-class family lead to arrogance, as does their lack of scruples that cause them to believe their poverty entitles them to their insidious deceptions. The rich family, in turn, mistakes sophistication for intelligence, utterly oblivious to how dehumanizing they’ve become.
Through both, Parasite shows us how we all bear responsibility for the society that we form. It’s not strictly the purview of one class or the other. Yet even as this tale crescendos in all its volatile, violent audacity – indicting everyone in its wake – Parasite also grieves.
Those new to Bong Joon-ho should know that he isn’t some upstart taking inspiration from Peele; if anything, it’s the opposite. Bong is a modern master who works almost exclusively in genre, examining societal conditions through each endeavor. He continually returns to shrewd dissections of class divide (Snowpiercer and Okja probably being his most recognized titles in the States), and Parasite is his most unsettling one yet. It’s also his most mesmerizing – and accomplished.
No one gets away clean in Parasite, even when it appears that some might. If either did, that would simply be propaganda (or, at best, schmaltz). This is art, unflinching in its messaging and unsparing in its scope, as ambitious in its craft (and its commitment to entertain) as in what it has to say.