Film Review: Powerful “Parasite” Offers Class Parable for Our Time

Film poster: “Parasite”

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.

Parasite, from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer), is a film with, and about, many layers. A parable about the wages of capitalist sins masquerading as a story of a long con, it goes about its initial business with great cinematic guile, setting up the gut punch of the second half with a breezy comic brio of an opener. As we root for the protagonists to succeed, we don’t, at first, ask the hard questions of why they need to. They are poor, their targets are rich, and it’s fun to watch them outsmart the elite. Until things get weird, that is, at which point we step back and ponder the larger societal implications.

When we meet the Kim family, they are living in a basement apartment in the heart of the city, their cell-phone service cut off and the upstairs Wi-Fi now suddenly password-protected. Struggling to survive, they’ll take any gig, including the folding of boxes for a pizzeria, and choose to keep the windows open as an exterminator sprays the outside street so that their place can benefit, as well (though the poisonous fumes enveloping them as they work seem an undue risk). When a close friend of the son, Ki-woo, stops by and informs them that he is leaving to study abroad, he offers his pal the fancy tutoring job to the daughter of a rich family. Though Ki-woo is not in college – we never learn exactly why, though money seems a factor – he has taken the entrance exams enough times that he thinks he can do the job. So off he goes in his finest, with forged documents provided by his sister, Ki-jung, to impress his potential future employer.

Woo-sik Choi, Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang and So-dam Park, as the Kim family, in PARASITE ©Neon

That other family’s house is a marvel of modern architecture, situated high above the slums from which Ki-woo hails. Consumed by nervous, aimless energy, the young mother, Mrs. Park, is impressed with Ki-woo’s false credentials and the way he handles her daughter in the first lesson, so much so that when she reveals that her son is in need of art tutoring, Ki-woo – whom the mother insists on calling “Kevin” (for the rich, English names are better) – is able to finagle an interview for his sister, heretofore known as “Jessica.” From there, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the Kim clan moves in, securing the positions that best suit each. The unsuspecting Parks go about their daily lives, and all are happy, the poor not necessarily robbing the rich (they are, after all, doing what they were hired to do), but certainly benefiting from a lie to escape their dire circumstances.

And then comes the flood, both literal (in the form of a massive rainstorm) and figurative (in the form of another set of basement dwellers). The swirling maelstrom of class resentments eventually overpowers the constructed artifice of seeming domestic bliss, washing away all pretense that complex problems can have easy solutions. No one deserves what happens, not even the clueless, genial Parks. In the end, no amount of savvy swindle will undo generations of increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots. We are all trapped by the system, though some of us are trapped in gilded cages, whiles others live among the rats. The true parasite is the bloodsucking specter of greed on our collective shoulders.

Yeo-jeong Jo as Mrs. Park in PARASITE ©Neon

In Korean, with English subtitles.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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