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There is just something about the house in the new Bong Joon-ho film Parasite. Its use of space is pristine, its windows are huge, and the lawn is perfectly manicured. It’s almost like a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum, except it also happens to be warm and inviting. The house allures one family so much, they go to great lengths to keep it. Their efforts unfold in a sly, comedic way, at least until the stakes turn deadly. Parasite is a masterful film, one that manipulates its audience in delightful ways. For all its cinematic powers, its rich thematic resonance is what will get under your skin.
The film won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and since then, audiences around the world have sung its praises. With all the excitement surrounding Parasite, discussions of the film have been muted because part of the film’s pleasures are its surprises. In fact, it is best you go in completely cold—but this review will not ruin any surprises.
The Kim family yearns to escape poverty. They live in a cramped basement, and have so little space that the toilet sits perched on a shelf in their bathroom. Choi Woo-shik plays Ki-woo, a young man who receives an unexpected opportunity: His friend sets him up as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family. Seduced by their wealth and gorgeous home, the rest of the Kims get in on the action. Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) ingratiate themselves into the Parks’ lives.
Economic disparity is the subtext for the tension between the Kims and the Parks, although it is one-sided. The Parks have so much ease and privilege in their lives that they have no context for class struggle or resentment. The Kims use that ignorance to their advantage by simply being good at their jobs, and the Parks are all too happy to let their guards down. Part of what makes all this deception so fascinating is that the Kims are not bad people. Parasite shows us how they act out of necessity, implying that other poor families in a stratified society would do the same thing.
Bong Joon-ho’s direction looks effortless, and he has tight control over the action and twists. It is inevitable that the Kims would have to fight for their new jobs, although the exact nature of the conflict is not something they could anticipate. The interiors of the house in Parasite are comforting, if a little clinical, so it is jarring when Bong upends that façade in an instant. He rearranges the story multiple times, so part of the fun is seeing how your sympathies might shift. The effect is similar to Hitchcock’s Psycho, but Parasite has far more characters who drive the plot forward. This is an incredibly suspenseful film, with characters desperately relying on a mix of luck and improvisation.
If you have seen the director’s previous films, you understand his ability to combine genres in unexpected ways. The Host is a monster movie and a family drama, while Okja unfolds like a fairy tale crossed with a globe-trotting environmental thriller. Parasite continues in that tradition, juxtaposing immaculate imagery with grimy sludge. Along with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, he captures the elegance that defines the one percent, and the invisible line dividing them from the squalor in which everyone else must live. This clash sometimes leads to violence, and here it is never exploitative. Instead, Parasite uses violence as something necessary, a queasy form of release. Every twist in the final act carries a sense of inevitability, both in terms of character development and allegory.
Parasite is exciting and alive in a way that few films ever achieve. All of its elements—the natural performances, dense plotting, and staggering political implications—coalesce into an undeniably dizzying, provocative piece. Bong Joon-ho is one of the world’s most gifted filmmakers, and Parasite is his masterpiece.
Parasite opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row.