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Here’s why twisty Oscar front-runner ‘Parasite’ is the most talked-about film this year

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An unemployed family takes an interest in a wealthy and glamorous family for their livelihood until they get entangled in an unexpected incident.
USA TODAY

NEW YORK – A must-see contender has crept into the awards race, and it doesn’t star a psychopathic clown or Brad Pitt’s abs.

Meet “Parasite” (in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expanding throughout October), the bracing, droll and wildly unnerving social thriller that became the first Korean-language film to clinch the prestigious Palme d’Or award at Cannes Film Festival.

In the months leading up to its U.S. release, Bong Joon-ho’s new movie has earned the kind of rapturous acclaim most filmmakers could only dream of, with a perfect 100% positive score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes (out of more than 125 reviews counted), and buzzed-about stops at Toronto and Telluride festivals, where hundreds were turned away from sold-out screenings

Now, “Parasite” is widely considered the front-runner to win best international feature film (formerly known as best foreign-language film) at this year’s Academy Awards, with more than half of prognosticators on awards site GoldDerby also predicting a best picture nomination. Bong is heavily expected to pick up nods for best director and original screenplay as well, following a similar path to awards glory blazed by Alfonso Cuaron’s black-and-white “Roma,” which won Mexico its first best foreign-language film Oscar last February. 

So what’s all the fuss about, and what do you need to know going in? USA TODAY sat down with Bong and the film’s stars to get the inside scoop. 

Review: ‘Parasite’ attaches to your soul with a thought-provoking tale of social inequality

Cannes Film Festival: Top prize goes to ‘Parasite,’ first Korean film to win Palme d’Or

It’s an ‘Avengers’-level minefield of potential spoilers 

“Parasite” is a twisty, bloody thrill ride that is best enjoyed if you go in blind. 

“Don’t look up anything prior,” advises actress Park So-dam. “Just come in without any expectation and no knowledge of the film.”

But if you need a little bit more to go off of, here’s the basic gist: Initially envisioned by Bong as a play and set almost entirely indoors, “Parasite” tells the story of two disparate families: the impoverished Kims, who live in a cramped, subterranean apartment doing odd jobs to make ends meet; and the affluent Parks, whose cushy lifestyle is dutifully run by a small army of chauffeurs, housekeepers and tutors. 

The charismatic but uneducated Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) cons his way into an English tutoring gig for the Parks’ teenage daughter (Jung Ziso), and slowly begins to infiltrate their home: He cleverly deceives the Parks into firing their staff, and convinces them to hire his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam),mom Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and dad Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). But the Kims’ get-rich scheme goes violently off the rails in the film’s suspenseful second half, descending into chaos that packs an emotional wallop. 

‘Parasite’ isn’t a horror movie – or is it? 

Although its crawly title suggests bloodsucking body horror, the R-rated thriller is rarely scary and only occasionally gory. 

“When the film begins, it feels like your typical dark comedy film, so the audience can just relax and watch it,” Bong says. “Halfway through, there’s a turning point that leads to all these uncontrollable situations and the audience doesn’t have time to wonder, ‘What is the genre?’ They’re just dragged to the endpoint without any time to consider what’s going on. So when they leave the theater, the audience just gives up on trying to define the genre, and that’s what I wanted.” 

The film explores class divides in darkly funny fashion

To often literal effect, “Parasite” shows the upstairs-downstairs dichotomy between rich and poor, as the Kims attempt to better their hapless circumstances under the feet of the blithe Park family. 

“The messages (Bong) is trying to give people about poverty differences and problems are universal,” Choi says. “It has a lot of meanings and metaphors, and you can actually have a conversation about it after.” 

The movie’s title is even up for interpretation: “A parasite is an entity that feeds off another thing, but if you look at the film, it’s not important to designate which side is parasitic,” Song says. “Certain characters are parasitic, but the message of the film is that everyone in society has to live in harmony and have respect toward one another.” 

You’ll never look at peaches the same again

In a movie chock-full of striking imagery, one of the most memorable is that of a peach, which Ki-jung scrapes of its fuzz. Stealthily, she sprinkles the fuzz on the Parks’ unassuming maid, who is fiercely allergic and falls ill on the job. Fearing she’ll infect their kids, the Parks fire the housekeeper on the spot. 

The fruit has become the unofficial “mascot” of “Parasite”: Strings of peach emojis frequently accompany tweets about the movie.

“Peaches are the most cinematic (food), just in terms of the visual aesthetics and the fact that the fuzz is barely visible, so it’s easy to attack someone with,” Bong says. 

Coincidentally, peaches were also central to another recent awards heavyweight: 2017’s “Call Me By Your Name,” in which Timothee Chalamet’s Elio pleasures himself with the fruit. Bong laughs off the connection between the two films, deadpanning, “I hope it helps all the peach farmers across the world.” 

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