Much of the delight in watching a Bong Joon-ho film is caught up in experiencing the careful tightrope all of them walk between tone, spectacle, and artistry. Although two of Bong’s previous movies, The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013), are among the highest-grossing features in South Korea, it would be just as inaccurate to dismiss the Korean auteur’s films as blockbusters as it would be to label them pure arthouse sensations. With Parasite, Bong Joon-ho has deservedly become the first Korean filmmaker to win the treasured Palme d’Or, one of the highest possible achievements in cinema. A masterpiece equal parts darkly comic and tragically poignant, Parasite is perhaps the 49-year-old director’s finest work yet, crafted with razor-sharp wit, political anger, and genuine heart alike.
In the broadest of strokes, Parasite concerns the unexpected entanglement of two families on opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. We predominantly follow the first family, an unnamed and mischievous nuclear unit living on the bottom floor of a shabby apartment in a shabby neighborhood. They are comprised of Ki-taek (frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho), his wife Chung Sook (Jang Hye-jin), and his two twentyish children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam). When we meet them, they are living the glamorous lifestyle of folding pizza boxes for a living and holding their cell phones up to the ceiling in hopes of leaching WiFi from their upstairs neighbors. Nevertheless, they seem content with their financial hardship, evidently happy just to be in each other’s company.
The catalyst that gets the ball rolling is Ki-woo’s friend (Park Seo-joon), who asks Ki-woo to take his place in tutoring English to the rich, attractive high school girl Da-hye Park (Jung Ziso) while he is studying abroad. Saying any more about the film’s plot would ruin the fun, as so much of its brilliance is delicately intertwined with watching its narrative unfold in front of you like a puzzle box. Even as someone who finds the growing “spoiler culture” somewhere between mildly annoying and immensely distressing, I can’t stress enough how worthwhile it is to know nothing more about the film’s plot than the vaguest of details.
As with many of Bong’s prior efforts, Parasite expresses a class-conscious anger through its increasingly absurd but ever-believable scenario. It’s every bit the biting satire of capitalism that Snowpiercer offered, yet with far more subtlety and smooth grace. Bong lampoons the ignorance of his wealthy characters again, but also acknowledges their humanity, however insulated from the real world they may be in their magnificent glass mansion. The ridiculous situations both families find themselves in range from genuinely hilarious to terrifyingly tense, sometimes within the same scene. The way Bong stages and frames his characters is meticulous and delightfully cinematic, contextualizing the symbiotic relationship between the two families within the open architectural spaces of the Parks’ cavernous house.
The editing and pacing are just as impeccable, both an impressive showcase of Bong’s prowess and control as an entertainer, pulling his audience closer and closer to the edge of their seats before pulling the rug out from underneath them. A particularly stirring climax of violence and desperation at the start of the third act makes phenomenal use of cross-cutting for emotional impact, and is undoubtedly one of the single best scenes this year.
Comparing Bong Joon-ho’s completely unique style to any other filmmaker is admittedly unfair and reductive, but it’s impossible to deny the interesting parallels that exist, both in story and theme, to Jordan Peele‘s Us. Both films address the socioeconomic divide between the top and bottom levels of wealth in modern society, using the energy released from their accidental collision as fuel for their plots and in the process exploring whether such an extreme division is inevitable. Where Peele used class as a mirror to reflect the best and worst in human behavior, Bong turns it into a battleground, an arena where cunning intelligence only goes so far when an arbitrary ruler (capitalism) decides who wins and dies. As much as I enjoyed Us, Bong’s sharp satirical edge runs laps around the bluntness of Peele’s home invasion piece, effortlessly conveying its angry understanding of class with rich, three-dimensional characters and none of the hints of moralizing that Peele’s film brought to the table.
After nearly two decades of directing feature films, Bong Joon-ho has crafted his most elegant masterwork yet. An articulate, chaotic whirlwind of laugh-out-loud humor, horrifying violence, and poignant pathos alike, it’s impossible to imagine a more immaculate embodiment of the globally-renowned auteur’s modus operandi. It’s not often that such a brilliant yet easily accessible film comes around, one that works just as effectively as a crowd-pleasing riot as it does an arthouse favorite. Full of heart, anger, and dark comedy, Parasite is a most deserved triumph for Bong Joon-ho, and assuredly one of the most outstanding films of 2019.