Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winner mixes ingenious character comedy with deep notes of dread
PARASITE (Bong Joon-ho). 130 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (October 18). See listing. Rating: NNNNN
Five minutes in, I was sure I knew where Parasite was going. An hour later, I was delighted to realize that not only would Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winner not be doing what I’d thought, but that I had absolutely no idea what was coming next, and I was giddy with excitement.
Now, Bong has always been one of the least predictable, most wonderfully eccentric talents in world cinema, consistently juggling genres and upending expectations. (Did anyone watching his dystopian action drama Snowpiercer expect to see Tilda Swinton turn up midway through, styled like an especially militant Margaret Thatcher?)
He explored capitalism and carnage through the super-pigs of Okja, and gave us the rampaging Han River monster of The Host, always finding shattering threads of humanity and empathy inside wild genre premises. And he’s approached his more grounded projects, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Memories Of Murder and Mother, with an eye for unexpected irony or absurdity.
Parasite feels like something new, or at least the full flowering of Bong as an auteur. He doesn’t mash up genres here he creates one.
The set-up is simple, introducing us to the Kims, a scrappy but loving clan of Seoul scammers: father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). They live in a shabby apartment in a rundown neighbourhood, subsisting on noodles, stolen WiFi and various quasi-legal enterprises.
When a school friend asks Ki-woo to fill in for him on a tutoring job with Da-hye (Jung Ziso), daughter of the wealthy architect Dong-ik Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and his pampered wife, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yo-jeong), the other Kims smell opportunity, worming their way into the family’s lives by taking jobs as a chauffeur, housekeeper and art tutor to their troubled son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun).
Bong takes immense pleasure in laying out an upstairs-downstairs farce, letting us spend time with characters on both sides of the story. The Kims ferret out the Parks’ weak spots while we watch: Song, a frequent presence in Bong’s films, is a particular joy as the casually opportunistic Ki-taek, adjusting his personality on a dime in order to better endear himself to Lee’s Dong-ik.
And Bong sprinkles perfect little details that show us how good the Kims are at their semi-predatory trade – like the mnemonic Ki-jung uses to remember her backstory – and, as I mentioned, it seems like there’s a pretty clear path taking shape. But that’s just the first act of Parasite. There’s ever so much more to it.
As in all of his films, Bong mixes genres as if he were shuffling through them on DJ decks, mixing moments of ingenious character comedy and unpredictable invention with deep notes of dread. He lets us see the essential humanity in both the Kims and the Parks, comparing and contrasting the two family units to note their specific insecurities, desires and allegiances, and the crucial vulnerabilities they share. The only real difference is that one family has money and the other doesn’t.
You think you know where this is going, right? You do not. Parasite isn’t out to subvert our expectations it wants to shatter them. It never stops being a comedy – this is, beat for beat, Bong’s funniest movie to date – but its caper aspects grow more serious in the background, as though clouds are slowly gathering above Hong Kyung-pyo’s camera. (Oh, right: Parasite is one of Bong’s best-looking movies, too, almost offhandedly contrasting the shabby clutter of the Kims’ world to the sleek, chilly spaces of the Park home.) A storm is coming – and indeed, a torrential downpour is a key element of the movie’s second half – but something even worse is bubbling up from below, rooted in class and status and deference, and it will not be denied.
Anyway, Parasite is a hell of a ride, and one of the year’s best films. Don’t you dare look up what happens.
Bong Joon-Ho will be hosting a Q&A during a screening of Parasite at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Monday, October 28. Details here.