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Class conflict, family ties and the darkness beneath – ‘Parasite’

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Sometimes, films come along that are outsized in the universal acclaim they receive. These movies are capital-G Great by consensus, leaving seemingly every single person who sees them breathless with effusive praise. These films are heaped with accolades and celebrated from on high.

But it’s rare – truly rare – that a film not only earns every accolade, every commendation and compliment, but somehow manages to also come off as somehow underappreciated. Rare … but not unheard of.

And here we arrive at Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.” Simply put, it is a masterpiece. It is a movie that deserves consideration not only as 2019’s best film, but as one of the decade’s best. Hell, one of the 21st century’s best. It is a brilliantly conceived and meticulously constructed piece, driven by an immersive narrative, an exquisite aesthetic and outstanding performances. It is smart and funny and brutal and cruel, a tense and complicated work that weaves together family drama, social commentary and sly wit. It is a film of challenges and contradictions – an intimate explosion.

(Full disclosure: “Parasite” is a South Korean film and hence is subtitled for American audiences. There are some who will automatically dismiss it because of that. I implore you – do not let your perceived issues with foreign language films prevent you from seeing this movie. It is beautiful and haunting no matter what tongue you speak.)

The Kim family – father Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho, “The Drug King”), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin, “Adulthood”), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik, “Monstrum” and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So Dam, Fukuoka”) – is struggling to get by, four people living in a basement apartment and working low-paying temp jobs to pay the bills. Try as they might, they can’t seem to get ahead; there doesn’t seem to be much hope of breaking the cycle.

That changes when Ki-woo’s friend Min (Park Seo-joon, “The Divine Fury”) approaches him with a proposition. See, Min is leaving to study abroad and wants to recommend Ki-woo to take over his job as an English tutor for a local high school student. Her family is extremely wealthy and will compensate him handsomely for the work. After some reluctance, Ki-woo agrees.

After forging some credentials, Ki-woo goes to the Park family’s home, a huge and beautiful home designed and lived in by a famed architect. There, he meets Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong, TV’s “Beautiful World”), the woman of the house, and dour housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jeung Eun, “Another Child”). He also meets his new charge, the quiet and unassuming Da-hye (Jung Ziso, “The Tiger”), and quickly earns her trust.

Things really start rolling when Yeon-kyo suggests that her younger child – a slightly out-of-control boy – could also use some instruction. Ki-woo immediately makes up an acquaintance, an art tutor; it’s a role that his sister Ki-jeong will ultimately assume.

From there, the Kims are off to the races, finding different ways to insinuate themselves into the world of the Park family, up to and including the family patriarch, a tech executive named Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun, “2036 Apocalypse Earth”). Soon, all four have assumed new identities and found positions within the Park family framework.

But their acts of deception have real consequences, unanticipated consequences that threaten to tear their lives apart. To rise above one’s station is difficult enough – and there are those who, once elevated, will do anything to prevent a fall back to Earth.

“Parasite” is staggeringly good, a remarkable piece of filmmaking that immerses and unnerves. Bong Joon Ho’s direction is that of a maestro, of an auteur unleashed. His gifts for visual storytelling are omnipresent, flickering from every frame of this film. It is a world constructed from the ground up, solely to house these characters and the tale they are to tell.

The depth of those characters is astonishing, with each of these richly realized humans springing to life with foibles and flaws abundant. The interpersonal dynamics, the relationships that grow and flow between these people … they’re just incredible to watch. From tiny tendrils to binding vines, these connections creep and crawl and subtly entwine, tying everyone together in a manner both overt and unseen.

All of this – the aesthetic excellence, the magnificent characterizations – is in service to a narrative that engages artistically while also serving to speak truth to power. The realities of class division are everywhere in this film; the desperation of those seeking more is contrasted with the blasé attitudes of those that have never wanted. Simmering resentment and dismissive disinterest. The dichotomy between wealth and poverty is the primary driving force of the narrative; it’s the reason everything happens – good, bad and in-between.

This exchange sums it up beautifully:

Ki-taek: “They are rich, but still nice.”

Chung-sook: “They are nice because they are rich.”

This is one of the strongest ensemble performances I’ve seen in years. Every single player in this group executes their role with a delicate precision and emotional depth. The Kims feel like a real family, albeit a morally flexible one. Song Kang Ho is a charming bundle of low-key fatherly amiability, while Chang Hyae Jin brings a sharper, flintier energy; they’re a wonderful pairing. Choi Woo Shik is outstanding as Ki-woo, the one who sets all the pieces into motion; there’s a soulfulness to him that contrasts nicely against the verve with which he executes his plan. Park So Dam finds this wonderful internal contradiction, a delicate coarseness, that brings Ki-jeong to bright life.

As for the Parks, Cho Yeo Jeong is marvelous as the charming-but-clueless Yeon-kyo; the character seems lost in a way that illustrates an actor who knows precisely where she is. Lee Sun Kyun strikes the perfect note of smugness as Dong-ik, so lacking in self-awareness that he doesn’t even register his own constantly expressed superiority, while Jung Ziso is the very picture of sweet naivete. And Lee Jeung Eun is incredible as housekeeper Moon-gwang, going on an actor’s journey whose full extent cannot be revealed for fear of spoilers; just know that she’s amazing.

The Oscars are just around the corner and “Parasite” might just be crashing the party. While the Best International Feature Film win is a given, this film has busted into the rest of the conversation in a big way. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay – “Parasite” is in the mix for all of them. For a foreign language film to make these kinds of inroads is exceedingly rare, but here’s the crazy part: this isn’t even necessarily a “just honored to be nominated” situation – this movie has a legitimate chance to win. Whether it does or not remains to be seen, but it 100% deserves to be part of the discourse.

I’ll put it this way – this movie would have made my 2019 top-10 easily had I seen it in time. And it very well may have landed among my best of the decade. Seriously – it’s that good.

As Bong Joon Ho has said over the course of this awards season, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” He’s right – and “Parasite” is a hell of a good place to start.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 January 2020 09:10

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