In the final act of Parasite, a character punctuates a dark moment with a fit of misplaced laughter. This scene perfectly encapsulates the experience of the film as a whole. Bong Joon-ho’s bizarre, fascinating masterpiece elicits strong emotions in the most unexpected moments: We get muted heartbreak mixed with unbound frustration, topped off with an incisive sense of humor. By the time this cinematic cyclone has effectively devastated us, the only thing we can do with all this sadness and shock is laugh at the perfect symmetry of it all.
The story focuses on the collision of two disparate families. The Kims live from one meal to the next, only their ragged cleverness keeps them from drowning in squalor. Meanwhile, the upper-class Parks dwell in a post-modern mansion and behave like cheerful dilettantes. Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the Kim family’s college-aged son, lands a job tutoring English to Park Da-hye (Jeong Ji-So), the wealthy clan’s teenage daughter. Ki-Woo uses this position to slowly wriggle his entire family into employment with the Park family.
At this moment, the Kims reveal themselves to be talented con artists. Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), the teenage daughter, poses as an art therapist for squirrelly young Park Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). Patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) takes over as the Park family driver. His wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) orchestrates a coup to become the housekeeper, framing the old one (Lee Jung-eun) in the process. All the Kims present themselves as urbane professionals, and quickly ingratiate themselves to Mr. and Mrs. Park (Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong, respectively).
I could reveal more, but an enormous chunk of this film’s brilliance lies in its ability to thrash you in unexpected directions. So many movies–so many freaking movies–feel like they were built from parts out of the same boring kit. In contrast, Parasite comes alive with sheer audaciousness and unrelenting intelligence. The script (by Bong and Han Jin-won) navigates its twists and bends with the self-confidence of a veteran driver on a mountain road. I can safely say that you won’t know where this movie is going, but you may find yourself laughing at the sheer insanity on your way there.
All the performers deliver excellent work with deceptively difficult roles. With both families, sympathy and contempt tend to flow in the same river. You’ll fall in and out of love with both families, sometimes within the same scene.
Parasite plays like a study in contrasts: It’s invigorating, yet exhausting. At its core lies a wicked sense of humor, surrounded by a sea of melancholia. The Kims bound against social barriers they can’t break, while the Parks never realize how fatally insulated they are. I walked away not knowing exactly what to feel, except that I ached for both families. And I laughed–yes, laughed–at how this movie could be so brazenly kooky and yet so oddly real, all at once. Parasite will stick in your head for days, and that might be the highest compliment to give any film.
132 min. R. (Korean, w/subtitles)