The impoverished Kim family, led by patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), scrape by using free Wi-Fi from surrounding businesses and sharing a pitiful wage earned through folding pizza boxes. Shortly after the film opens, Ki-taek’s son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is recommended as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family by a friend. Having been too poor to study himself, he creates a fake resume and bluffs his way through the interview. Long story short, the Parks’ other staff soon find themselves unemployed, and replaced by the rest of the Kims under false names.
I can’t overstate just how cleverly Bong’s script balances its central critique of class disparity. Drastic action might be needed for the poor to raise themselves out of a dire situation, but the manipulative Kims take this concept to an absurd extreme. Similarly, the Parks’ success is shown to have made them impossibly naïve, as embodied by the ditzy matriarch Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) who never questions the rapid and unlikely turn of events. Crucially though, just when it seems like the rich might be too easy a target, Bong reminds us just how deep the socioeconomic divide between these families really is. For the Parks, a sudden rainstorm means having to come home early from a camping trip. Meanwhile, the Kims’ house floods and forces them to spend the night huddled in a packed gymnasium, clutching their few intact possessions.
Yet Bong is far from the only factor in this film’s success, with PARASITE serving as a true ensemble acting showcase. As mentioned above, Cho Yeo-jeong is a highlight and makes her fairly archetypal ‘rich housewife’ character consistently fun to watch. Cinephiles can also rest assured that the latest collaboration between Bong and Song Kang-ho (star of 2006’s The Host) lives up to expectations. Song’s offbeat presence effortlessly matches Bong’s penchant for tonal shifts: he alternates between slapstick, smarmy deception and outright mania better than almost any performer I can think of. However, I was most impressed by Park So-dam as Song’s onscreen daughter Kim Ki-jung. Park plays Ki-jung as the most enigmatic and least outwardly desperate member of her family and steals every scene she’s in, adapting to her lavish new surroundings eerily well. In fact, her icy exterior when enacting plans which, again, will get strangers fired, should be the first clue that PARASITE is more than it seems.
It’s perfectly understandable to fall in love with PARASITE following the breathtaking satire of its first hour. I know I did; there’s a montage involving food allergies used to mimic the symptoms of tuberculosis that will have any viewer in stitches. Nevertheless, the film retains and at times even embraces its sinister undertones, particularly in Jung Jae-il’s memorably creepy score. This culminates in what PARASITE is sure to be remembered for: a sudden genre change in the second half which Bong and the cast nail. I’m already worried about having said too much, but suffice it to say it’s claustrophobic, tense, and had me genuinely holding my hands in front of my mouth. I guarantee no one will be able to guess the gut punch of an ending too.
PARASITE is one of the most unique cinematic visions I’ve seen in years and represents a filmmaker, cast and crew at the top of their games. Its analysis of class warfare is not only insightful but wrapped in a compelling case study I can’t wait to experience all over again. Much like I did for my other 2019 favourite The Farewell, I urge anyone even remotely curious to seek this film out. You won’t forget it anytime soon.