A Lesson in Class – Parasite

It’s not very often I walk into a theater without at least a generalized idea of what I’m about to see but, in this case, I only knew the title and director, which was enough to get me through the door. Despite advocating for lowering cinematic expectations, it’s often difficult to follow one’s own advice and easy to forget just how enjoyable movie-going can be in those instances. Parasite is a wickedly clever and wonderfully shadowy take on what happens when the two ends of a class system collide.

This wasn’t at all what I expected but that’s a wonderful thing. Writer/Director Bong Joon Ho’s work (Snowpiercer, The Host) usually has some twisted element to it but, for some reason, I envisioned this as a horror movie. Maybe it has something to do with the poster or the title, or even my own desire considering the time of year. While it wouldn’t generally qualify as a horror film, there are some very frightening elements at play in the script by Bong and Jin Won Han.

Like many of Bong’s other films, class divide is a dominant theme and things gradually got darker as they went along but you’re never really sure just how far down the rabbit hole you are. What made it work so well was allowing the audience to just observe how these two families act within their own units and how their behavior changes when they interact with one another. The dialogue was particularly strong, focusing heavily on the dynamics of two families on opposite ends of the spectrum and using a lot of sarcasm to highlight those distinctions. The resolution may leave a bit of a hollow spot for some because it’s a surprisingly poetic ending to a bizarre story but it’s a deliciously dark comedy and the humor worked well in all facets of the story. There’s a reason this movie took home the Palme d’Or as the top film at the Cannes Film Festival this year.

The Kims are poor and desperate, living in a tiny basement apartment, and scraping by on earnings from folding pizza boxes. No one in the household has any upward mobility or much motivation to change that until the son, Ki-woo, gets an opportunity to tutor the daughter of the wealthy Park family and is exposed to their lifestyle. They live in an absolutely gorgeous modern home, designed by the most renowned architect in South Korea. Mr. Park is a well-respected and successful businessman, his wife is generous and kind but incredibly gullible and the two kids both appear to have bright futures.

The differences between the families are stark and there’s is a good deal of visual symbolism to represent their positions. There are either steps, stairs or some other distinction between physical levels in almost every scene. The Park’s expensive home is located at the top of the hill, and the Kims live basically all the way at the bottom of the city which is powerfully displayed when they are forced to walk home during a storm in one scene. One particular shot, looking up through the window of the Kims’ basement apartment, unfolds in glorious slow-motion and punctuates the beauty and the pain of the family’s existence. The visual approach to storytelling was well-executed because Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong had a strong grasp of the concept and made sure to keep it present in the background as often as possible.

A massive part of what made this all click was the stellar performances across the board. There were 9 primary characters between the two households but Woo-sik Choi was probably the “lead” as Ki-woo. Choi brought just the right blend of boyish innocence and ruthless aspiration to the character which made for a very good, albeit very flawed, narrator. Longtime Bong collaborator Kang-ho Song (Mr. Kim) made his veteran presence powerfully felt every time he was on camera. Typically, you’d call it scene-stealing but this was full-on scene ownership. Sun-kyun Lee (Mr. Park) and Yeo-jeong Jo (Mrs. Park) both delivered excellent performances as well. Their marriage is far from perfect and the two characters are very different which played out wonderfully on camera, especially when the Kims were in the scene with them. There were just so many personalities, each one of them biting their tounges, it was a lot of fun to watch. It’s really a testament to a strong script and clear direction by Bong who shouldn’t be forgotten about when it comes to awarding Best Director.

Choi (left) and Song (right)

Parasite only recently opened in limited release stateside, so the $3-million-ish domestic box office really isn’t too bad for a Korean film. However, it’s the $93-million global box office that’s really eye-popping. Money isn’t a great measure of quality in cinema but, in this case, it says quite a lot. The movie has a distinct universal appeal that’s clearly resonated with audiences all across the globe and that’s truly impressive. If this were an American production (fingers crossed it doesn’t get remade) it would cost exponentially more to make and come nowhere near the $90-million mark. This was easily one the top-10 films of 2019 so don’t be surprised to see it lead the pack for Best Foreign Film and, at this point, it has to be in the conversation for Best Picture as well.

Recommendation: It’s still a bit harder to find than most people would like but do yourselves a favor and go find it. The performances and the unique delivery of the story are enough to make it worth the price of admission. 

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