by Ken Bakely
The effect of watching Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is like riding a carousel moving a little faster than you expected. Sounds and images speed past you, daring you to take it all in, making you feel uneasy and imbalanced – and yet, at the same time, the experience is not jerky or jumpy, but of one continuous motion. The film is packed with rapid tonal shifts and actions that quickly build to unexpected, climactic confrontations, but we’re always under Bong’s steady hand as a director. His communication and artistry are always singular, conveying a caustic examination of wealth inequality and exploitation of the working class with – by turns – slapstick humor, biting satire, careful observations, and squalls of physical action. It all amounts to one of the most transfixing movies of the year. The film follows the impoverished Kims: father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Stuck with menial jobs and searching for any work that could give them at least some sense of security, they discover the wealthy Park family, who reside in a stern, imposing mansion. They hatch a meticulous plan to infiltrate this exclusive, moneyed environment, assuming the roles of various domestic servants and, after framing the previous holders of these positions for a number of invented offenses that lead to their firings, feel as if they are closer to making it as they’ve ever been. But the world of even the idlest rich holds many dark surprises, and the workers that the Kims have spurned aren’t quite out of the picture, leading to chaos on multiple fronts emerging in very short order.
Those familiar with Bong’s previous work have come to expect such dramatic shifts, but even for someone like this critic, who felt a certain distance from those other movies that were otherwise widely embraced, Parasite seems to exist on a different plane altogether. Everything snaps into place: it is a work of consummate professionalism, yes, but it’s not something that one necessarily takes stock of, as much as it’s a simple account of the surroundings of the film. It’s such an absorbing viewing that it seems redundant to think about – of course everything whirs and hums along, and it’s easy to take the considerable scale of the achievement for granted. But one must consider these components on their level to gain a fuller appreciation of exactly how great this movie is. The capable cast, led by a spectacular Song Kang-ho, portray a mosaic of characters whose increasingly bizarre actions exemplify the dangerous gap of their class divisions. They anchor the sharp screenplay by Bong and Han Jin-won. Bong expertly angles the Kims’s infiltration of the upper-class life as entering an entirely different world altogether. And yet, at the same time, their underlying desire to actually live the lifestyle of the upper class is always colored by the gutting reality that they were only allowed admission because they tricked the aloof Parks into thinking that they could professionally supplement them in their desire to live a life as full of meticulous assistance as possible. For all that happens throughout the movie, it’s not that the violent, third-act surprises are the direct consequence of something, as much as the structure of this entire situation is invariably suffocating.
Essentially, we watch as all of these characters stumble around in this corrupted system, either as aimless rulers or the scrappy plotters who try to get there without really getting anywhere. When it comes time for things to truly devolve into madness, the surprise is not that it does, but more that it took so long. And yet, Parasite is not dirge-like to watch, but rather a spectacularly skillful accomplishment as well as deeply enthralling and enrapturing viewing. Cinematographer Hong Kyung-po’s compositions are striking, whether they be static wide shots that allow us to take in the startling coldness of the Park mansion, or urgent pans across fluid action sequences. It’s the most purely visual aspect of the sheer versatility of the film, which adapts to each new twist and turn with full commitment and a stunningly realized overall vision. Combining the sharpness of its commentary with this, it’s a movie that’s almost overwhelming to approach at times, stacking all these ideas together and presenting them in a controlled, but wild, whirlwind. And yet, to draw one final contrast: its impact doesn’t stun, but rather communicates ideas that are clear and vital, making for a ferocious symphony of blazing, blistering social criticism. Through this, it comes together as something quite sweeping, with the omnidirectional energy and surprise that one feels throughout matched only by the confidence and ability that Bong and company bring to it.