Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite might be the best movie of the year

Art is too subjective a field for any single movie to be deemed a masterpiece by absolutely everyone who sees it, but if there’s any film in recent memory that may (and should) earn that particular distinction, it’s Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Despite a nervous lead-up — the director put forth a letter asking audiences not to spoil the movie in the days prior to the film’s premiere at Cannes, as well as saying in an interview that the story might be too Korean for mass audiences to jive with it — the film is a bona fide wonder, and may claim the crown for the best movie of the year.

Fans of the Korean filmmaker’s work (The Host, Memories of Murder, and more recently Snowpiercer and Okja) will have an inkling of what’s in store, i.e. fluid movement between tones and genres that defies categorization, and a patience in fleshing out emotional beats that turns early flutters of butterfly wings into tornadoes later on. With Parasite, Bong has honed those instincts to an uncanny extreme; wherever you think the film is going, it gets there within the first half hour, and morphs into at least two distinct entities after that. It’s not unlike the creature in The Host in that respect — it keeps growing, becoming deadlier each time it changes shape.

The motor powering Parasite is class. When the film opens, the Kim family are trying to figure out which local business’ free wifi they can glom onto now that the network they’ve been using has become password protected. Patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) advises his kids to hold their phones higher, while his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) folds pizza boxes as the family’s sole source of income. It’s not enough money to afford tuition for their kids, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam), but they make just enough to stay in their sub-basement apartment, getting “free” fumigation by leaving their windows open when exterminators visit the nearby houses.

Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) struggle to find a wifi signal.
Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) struggle to find a wifi signal.

The tide turns in their favor when one of Ki-woo’s friend gives up his gig as a private tutor to the daughter of a wealthy family so as to travel abroad. Before he leaves, he recommends Ki-woo for the job, bringing him into the orbit of the Parks, who are rich beyond measure. Unlike the cramped apartment in which the Kims reside, the Parks live in a spacious house that used to be occupied by the famous architect who built it, with a housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) who sees to their every need.

Armed with forged college papers, Ki-woo manages to make a good impression on Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong), and even gets his sister in on the scam when Mrs. Park mentions that her young son needs a new art teacher. Just like that, the Kims have found a source of income: the Parks. That boon, however, has side effects. Their new place in the lives of the Parks means displacement elsewhere, and the more metaphorical bricks slip out of place, the more precarious the entire structure becomes.

Watching the Jenga tower wobble is exhilarating, and led to not only one but two bursts of applause during the critics’ screening at Cannes (the only film I attended to earn any applause before credits rolled). The contrast between the delicate balance the characters must maintain and Bong’s bombastic, pull-out-all-the-stops storytelling is a pure adrenaline rush — I was shaking when I left the theater, and remained that way for at least an hour.

Song Kang-ho holding a scholar’s rock in Parasite. Neon

Once that dust settles, the effects of Parasite still remain. The film — perhaps inevitably, given its basis in social inequity — careens into awful tragedy, and the delight Bong summons in his deft craftsmanship morphs into an itch under the skin as the desperation of the characters really sinks in.

As if to underline the point, Jung Jae-il’s score is almost operatic. It lets go of any of the dissonance that would usually accompany sequences meant to evoke tension and instead leans fully into classical riffs, with the camera gliding along accordingly smoothly. The performances are just as rich, particularly those of the women. Cho, Lee, and Jang’s characters exist on three different rungs of the ladder, and the dynamics between them — deference, resentment, and Chung-sook’s claim that “money makes you nice” — are subtler than the polar opposites that Ki-taek and Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) represent. (Though, that said, Song has a close-up that calls back to a similar moment of bravado in Memories of Murder that will linger in the imagination long after the movie is over.)

The only pity is, perhaps, the film’s title, which, while fitting, suggests a genre, sci-fi attitude that Parasite ultimately doesn’t have. It exists in the same heightened realm as The Host and Snowpiercer, but it has no leaps into the future or kaiju emerging from the river — it doesn’t need them. The monsters Bong has dreamt up have always been human, and he loves them all, without a doubt. So it goes with Parasite.

Neon will release Parasite later this year.


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