[Movie Review] Parasite is a disquietingly brilliant critique of our times
Director Bong Joon-ho’s (Memories of Murder, Okja) darkly funny social satire, Parasite, has been getting the highest of accolades since its premiere earlier this year, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for it to finally come to my area. Starring Bong’s frequent leading man Song Kang-ho, as well as Jo Yeo-jung, Park So-dam and Choi Woo-shik, the film is an intense, brutal takedown of the absurd tragedies of wealth inequality in late-stage capitalism that will make you gasp as often with unexpected laughter as with alarm and delight at its unending twists.
Without spoiling the movie, the story revolves around Choi and Park’s characters, siblings who live a miserable existence in a squalid basement apartment, their entire family of four unable to find work in what young Koreans colloquially call Hell Joseon. The kids start a chain of events that lead to the four of them getting increasingly entangled with the lives of a rich family, and as the movie progresses these encounters ramp up in a slow, tense escalation that explosively comes to a head in the third act.
Bong has said in interviews that, as a writer-director, he tends to have a clear idea of the sights and sounds that he envisions for the film, meticulously storyboarding scenes far in advance (although he doesn’t hold himself to every particular on the day of shooting). That care and attention to detail are clear in the visual complexity and careful framing of every shot; the visual field and soundscape of this movie are so rich that I already want to go back and see it again. Bong’s movies are varied in scope but they share a brilliantly executed sense of low-level, building dread that almost drips from the screen, and yet never overwhelms what he’s trying to do with the story–the tension never breaks until the precise moment that he wants it to. After watching one of his works the viewer is left feeling as though they’ve been taken on a journey by a virtuoso. The powerful images and feelings it evoked in me have certainly lingered for days.
One of this movie’s many strong points is its simultaneous specificity and universality; this is at once a story about one particular family in South Korea, and a broader commentary on the degrading idols of capitalism that are literally driving people underground, sustained on the dregs and crumbs left behind by a tiny fraction of the extremely wealthy who alone in their carefree existence, untouched by the ravages of food insecurity, economic depression, even environmental disaster. And while this theme is clear to anyone who watches the film, it’s only one aspect of a movie that has multiple embedded layers of social commentary.
Take the obsession of the youngest child in the rich family with “Indians,” for example; his very privileged backyard camping trip in an imported American teepee says volumes about the levels of exploitation going on here (and who is actually the “savage” in this situation, especially when these indigenous motifs play a pivotal role in the climax of the film). Or the pointed, conscious use of English words by characters of every social class as a marker of culture, of knowledge that somehow has the potential to lift them up, rooted in the pervasiveness of American imperialism. And yet from early on, one of the characters repeatedly breaks the fourth wall by saying an object is “metaphorical,” an indirect and gentle poke at all this symbolism from the director, as if he’s winking at the analyses he knows are coming in reviews like this.
The cast are across-the-board excellent, which is no surprise given this incredible lineup. Song is his usual unquantifiable genius in the role of Choi’s father, and Lee Seon-kyun gives all the power of his unique voice and manner to the cynically suave head of the rich family. Jo Yeo-jung is fascinating in her role of the oblivious, pampered samo-nim, the epitome of what Song observes at one point about their household: they’re not nice even though they’re rich, but because they are rich.
In this cutthroat world where most people have to claw and scrape for every won, no one has that luxury except those who are so wealthy that they’re insulated from the nightmare threat of poverty. And even that “niceness” proves to be very different from goodness–although I would venture to say that no character in this film possesses the latter quality. The system itself has become so unlivable that we are becoming alienated from our own humanity, bit by bit, until we become used to living in the dark, and forget the feeling of light and freedom.
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