Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), a young man living in poverty, miraculously scores a part-time job tutoring mathematics for a rich Korean family. When that family needs an art tutor, Ki-woo knows of an excellent choice. When the family fires their driver for impropriety, their new art tutor knows of the perfect replacement. When their housekeeper falls ill, it is the new driver who suggests the perfect woman for the job. Without realising what they have done, the family has hired Ki-woo, his sister (Park So-dam), his father (Song Kang-ho), and his mother (Jang Hye-jin) – and have no idea of what is to happen next.
Parasite is the latest film by Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho. It is either the best feature film I have seen in 2019, or it is very close to it. Bong has been one of the world’s most interesting directors for many years, thanks to a seemingly endless stream of strong films including The Host, Memories of Murder, Poetry, Barking Dogs Never Bite, and Snowpiercer. Parasite, which won this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, is almost certainly his strongest film.
To my mind Bong’s signature skill is his remarkable ability to blend and balance genre, and it is a skill on full display here. What begins as some form of sly heist drama shifts back and forth from drama to comedy, then comedy to thriller, and occasionally into some sort of ambivalent combination of all three. An act of violence can seem terribly funny. A simple conversation can be oddly threatening. It is a work of nimble bravura, as dexterous in its plot as it is in its tone. Perhaps the most impressive part is that, for long-term viewers of Bong’s work, this is pretty much par for the course for his films. This latest work, buoyed by experience gained via his earlier films, is his best to date; so visibly superb that the broad cinema community has finally sat up and taken notice.
Bong also brings along a typically strong sense of aesthetic. The camera angles are purposefully and beautifully composed. The film’s luxury mansion setting is pitch-perfect, and has been composed and shot with a remarkable sense of space. Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo’s work here is masterful.
The performances are strong, including regular Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho as Ki-woo’s con artist father Kim Ki-taek and Cho Yeo-jeong as Yeon-gyo, the rich and overly trusting wife of an IT tycoon who unwittingly hires the Kim family on her husband’s behalf. The characters are rich in texture and variously flawed, making the film’s numerous moral uncertainties both effective and addictive. At times it is difficult to decide which side to barrack for: the rich elites or the poor criminals. Bong’s broad use of metaphor to represent the tension between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ underlies the entire story, and his conclusions have a palpable emotional impact.
It is a difficult task to review films like Parasite, because in the end you have almost certainly run out of superlatives with which to apply to it. It is, in the end, that most dreaded of words for a critic to use: a masterpiece.