★★★★ / ★★★★
Joon-ho Bong’s black coffee comedy “Parasite” is an effective social commentary on two fronts: the great lengths we are willing to go for money and how a few of us—no—how many of us would not even think twice to step on our fellow man just to be able to climb a little higher. But the film is first and foremost riotously, endlessly entertaining. It is savagely funny parts—particularly in how it portrays the privilege of the rich and the desperation of the poor right alongside one another—occasionally suspenseful in terms of deception piling on top of one another that we know something has got to give eventually, and at times quite sad in its accurate portrayal of indigence. Perhaps the system is designed so that in order for the rich to exist and flourish, others must live and die in poverty.
Right when we lay eyes on the Kim family, we learn that they are survivors precisely because they are opportunists. And so when Ki-woo (Woo-shik Choi) is presented the chance to make good money by tutoring a high school girl (Ji-so Jeong) who comes from a well-to-do family, he seizes the role with alacrity and, because he is street-smart, eventually finds a way to get the rest of his family (Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, So-dam Park) to work for the Parks (Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Cho). The screenplay by the director and Jin-won Han is so meticulous and efficient, seeing the Kims insinuate themselves into the Park household is like watching a complex equation being reduced into its most basic form over time: elegant, logical, and mesmerizing. And then just when we think we know precisely where the plot is heading, it takes a sudden right turn.
The film’s best attribute then is two-fold: its ability to surprise and then making us follow that new direction in a way that feels comfortable or natural. I think it works because the story is not merely composed of nifty plot contortions. We are actually made to understand why the Kim family choose to take the actions that they do. When the more overt life-or-death situations face them—which they are no stranger to since they live in poverty: every day is life or death when there’s no food to put on the table—they respond how some of us might when presented with similar circumstances. We sympathize and empathize with the main characters not through dialogue—since not every member of the family is articulate—but in spending time in their sub-basement home, by looking at their oversized and tattered clothing, how they carry themselves when they are reminded of their lack of stature.
During the final stretch of the picture, notice that images which portray the animosity of the haves toward the have-nots become more prevalent and obtrusive. Extreme closeups are employed in order to highlight boiling points. And so eruption of violence is not at all unexpected. What is surprising, however, is the poetry behind the violence. Instead of action-driven—which Western pictures tend to employ regardless of whether or not the approach is appropriate—the violence here is often ugly, messy, ironic, and possessing a comic strip quality to them. They are meant to be off-kilter so that we feel uncomfortable by the horrific happenings. There is an absence of a typical catharsis. And so we must ponder why that is.
“Parasite” is not about crime or murder. It is a human story told with an observant eye for humor, irony, and tragedy. And we cannot help to watch unblinkingly because we recognize nuggets of truth in what is being portrayed. What is art but a reflection of our times?