Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is the best kind of monster movie. It sees a family confronted with an inhumane force of pervasive evil. There are scares, there are laughs, and there is bloodshed. The monster never appears on screen, though. The unseen and omnipresent beast corrupts and destroys all it touches. The monster is social privilege.
Of the 60 films I saw at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite blew the competition out of the water. Parasite, which was a runner-up for TIFF’s People’s Choice Award after unanimously winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, just might be the best film of 2019. Bong’s film is a wickedly funny essay on class warfare. Few films tap into the cultural zeitgeist as brilliantly and originally as Parasite does. The film navigates the rich-poor divide with furious anger, yet it’s as sincere as it is sinister.
Parasite is Bong’s ninth feature film as a director, and it proves that he’s one of the best filmmakers today. After the horror show of The Host (2006), the crazy train of Snowpiercer (2013), and the fantastic fable of Okja (2017), Parasite sees Bong in new terrain. It’s not a speculative work, as many of his other films are. But it draws upon conventions of horror cinema, especially the simmering slow burn that defines many South Korean terror tales. Parasite defies categorization, so let’s simply call it a masterpiece.
The film features two families from very different walks of life. The Kim family lives deep in the urban jungle. Huddled tightly together in a basement apartment that’s so damp and cramped their socks never dry, the Kims aren’t well off. None of them has gainful employment when the film begins. They scuttle about their apartment, coveting free Wi-Fi from the local coffee shop and folding pizza boxes together for some easy cash.
The parents, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) and Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), are unmotivated role models. Their kids, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and Ki-jung (So-dam Park), don’t aspire to much beyond a stable Internet connection. When Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk stops by and delivers an auspicious scholar’s rock—a stone ornament that Ki-taek believes carries an omen of good fortune—the family has renewed hope.
The Parks, on the other hand, have nothing but good fortune. They live in a grand estate on the other side of town, designed by a famous architect whom their housekeeper Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee, who voiced the pig in Okja) reveres. The father, Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), is a wealthy tech exec who makes so much money that his wife, Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), doesn’t have to do anything but worry about trivial things.
The Kim family enters the Park’s world when Ki-woo assumes Min-hyuk’s job tutoring their daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung) in English. Both the Kim kids are con artists in the making, and Ki-woo quickly learns that Mrs. Park’s stupidity and gullibility mark her for the taking. The Kims crack a devilish plan to infiltrate the Park home as the rich fruits of their luxurious lifestyle are too juicy to ignore. But the taste of money soon runs bitter.
Not a frame is misused in this dark fable. From the brooding cinematography to the spine-tingling score, Parasite builds a Hitchcockian sense of dread. All 132 minutes of Parasite fly by as Bong’s first act simmers with tension only to explode with a doozy of a twist that mutates the film into something sinister.
The direction of Parasite is taut and precise, as every element of the frame puts the class distinctions in dialogue. The use of cinematic space–compare the Kims’ dank quarters to the Parks’ cavernous excess–fuels both the horror and the comedy as more and more bodies accumulate in the opulent home. The performances from the committed ensemble are particularly effective as the Kims scurry around their shabby flat like cockroaches while the runway-ready Parks ooze charisma and confidence. Kang-ho, a Bong regular, is a note-perfect embodiment of weathered dignity. The patriarch carries himself with the dutiful resignation of a man marked by a life of servitude.
On the other hand, Yeo-jeong steals the show with her deadpan funny turn as Mrs. Park. This woman’s sense of the world doesn’t extend beyond whatever dining room or shopping mall she happens to be in. But no matter how hilariously vapid Yeon-kyo Park might seem, Parasite doesn’t judge her. She’s kind and well-intentioned, but so woefully ignorant that she’s a victim of her own making.
This exhilarating satire perfectly captures the boiling point between social divides and class distinctions. The film shocks and provokes by puncturing black comedy with blood-soaked insight on social determinism and mobility. When Parasite explodes into violence, it feels like the natural order running its course. People can only be dehumanized for so long, or made to feel so worthless and hopeless before they rightfully fight back. The film’s sparse but brutal splash of violence is earned as every corner of the world shakes with the inequalities driven by a growing rich/poor gap.
One couldn’t find a better, sharper, or scarier portrait of the times than Bong Joon-ho’s pitch-perfect Parasite. Talk about a Bong hit!
Parasite opens in Toronto on October 18.
Want a second opinion? Watch Jason Gorber’s review of Parasite from Cannes!