“Parasite” sounds like an unnerving horror movie about unwanted invaders, but that’s just one aspect that completely works in this socially conscious delight.
One of the most well-rounded movies you’ll see this year, the South Korean film-fest favorite (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expanding throughout October) also balances black comedy, biting social satire, human drama and thriller twistiness for a refreshing effort that’s familiar enough in its themes to be extraordinarily inviting. The latest excellent effort for writer/director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Okja”) is a more entertaining version of “Roma,” an Oscar-ready, slice-of-life foreign film that challenges its audience to look inward.
Mashing up a variety of genres, “Parasite” is at its heart a morality tale centering on two disparate families: the poor Kims and the well-to-do Parks. With the shiftless Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) as their patriarch, the unemployed Kim clan live in squalor: Their apartment is a dingy, claustrophobic basement dwelling (with the most interesting view being a frequently urinating vagrant); family members steal wi-fi from the coffee shop, and they fold pizza boxes as their main source of income.
Cannes Film Festival:‘Parasite’ becomes the first Korean film to win Palme d’Or
While poor, they also prove to be a bunch of desperate, scheming grifters when the chance arises. Siblings Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik and Ki-jung (Park So-dam) can’t pass university entrance exams but they get an A-plus in charisma: With fake diploma in hand, Ki-woo is recommended by a friend to the wealthy Parks as an English tutor for their teenage daughter (Jung Ziso). He charms the girl’s flighty mom Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong) and then gets his sister installed as an art teacher for the Parks’ young son (Jung Hyun-jun).
The Kims’ underhanded shenanigans – and parasitic tendencies – continue as Ki-taek takes over as the driver for workaholic Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and conniving Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) becomes the Parks’ live-in housekeeper after ousting longtime employee Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun) by using a peach allergy against her.
Much of the film’s first act is played for dark humor until a major shoe drops for the Kims one stormy night when they’re partying at the palatial estate while the Parks are off on a birthday weekend getaway. Suddenly, a somewhat breezy story takes a sinister turn, and things get vicious and violent but also downright heartbreaking.
The movie is expertly paced with its reveals, never falls apart (even when it descends into bloody chaos) and also features outstanding acting performances, especially from Song. His Ki-taek is a failed businessman yet still has some pride, and the actor sells the character’s quiet seething as Mr. Park puts him in his place with withering comments. And while they don’t always outwardly show it, there is a close love among the Kims, which gets tragically tested over the course of the film.
Like Bong’s similarly themed “Snowpiercer,” class warfare is a major theme of “Parasite,” as the greedy have-nots worm their way into the lives of the haves – and indeed make that existence their own for a time. But the movie also leans into the cautionary side, that it all can be horrifyingly washed away in an instant.
“Parasite” doesn’t villainize its ne’er-do-wells or heroize its victims – other than one bright Morse-coding boy, the Parks are a rather clueless bunch who can’t really relate to the travails of the Kims. Amid the black comedy, there’s a lesson to be had about maybe not loving your neighbor but at least understanding them in a landscape chock-full of inequity, and in that vein “Parasite” attaches to you and doesn’t let go.
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