There’s never been a filmmaker quite like Bong Joon-ho. His way of twisting popular genres with his unique sense of humor and penchant for (albeit well-earned) bloodshed has made him a director with fairly widespread global appeal. But Parasite is both smaller and more ambitious than much of his recent output. There are no CGI mutant pigs or trains breaking through the apocalypse here, and yet, the auteur not only retains his specific style, he evolves it, taking us through a multitude of wildly different tones with the precision of a master storyteller.
It’s important to note that knowing as little as possible going into Parasite is paramount to how it builds onto itself, but the film starts as a fairly simple comedy. We follow the Kim family as they live in a dingy basement apartment on a dreary side of town. Through a friend, the son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) gets a job tutoring the daughter of a wealthy family, the Parks, with a stunningly modern home far up the hill. After vetting the matriarch, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so, giving the film’s most fabulously eccentric turn), Ki-woo convinces her to hire his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), as an art therapist for their very young son, whose childlike drawings are displayed around the house as if he’s the next Jackson Pollock.
Much of the first act is devoted to the Kims, including the father and mother (Song Kang-ho and Jang Hye-jin, respectively), scamming their way into jobs working for the Parks on a daily basis. Bong sells us on the likability of his characters first, rather than their emotional depth, charmingly taking us through their crimes with pitch-perfect comedic timing for a hilarious pseudo rags-to-riches story.
Then, as they bask in their glory, Parasite dramatically changes what kind of story it’s telling, which will happen again before the end. The light and frothy tone turns into something darker, as Bong explores the uglier side of this justified rage from what we consider the lower class of society. Not unlike how many read Jordan Peele’s more allegorical horror in Us, this film centers on the violent rise of those high-society has left downtrodden and, almost as literally here with the Kims as the scissor-wielding doppelgangers, underground. And just as with Peele’s film, the vanity of the rich is turned up to 11 and played for comedy. The main difference, though they would make for a hell of a double feature, is how Bong introduces us to and guides us through his story with the purported heroes. He has perhaps made the most genuinely unpredictable film of the year.
The Kims are never meant to resemble stand-up citizens per se, but Parasite wields its empathy like a sledgehammer, and what we do feel for them comes with such blunt force because of how the story evolves. Where Bong proves masterful in making the ever-shifting tone of the film feel seamless, so that its flow is as natural as it is tight, he doesn’t quite as strongly manage how our feelings toward the characters shift along with said tone. The film’s big emotional moments still hit, but for how big they are, there’s a sense that they could be hitting a little harder.
In terms of visual style, however, Parasite is always engaging. The stark contrasts in the lives of the Kims and the Parks is vibrantly illustrated through incredibly purposeful art direction, as well as the way cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo chooses to the shoot them. The slums have a wet, neon-bathed glow, while the Parks’ home usually benefits from cozy lighting and natural sunlight. For a thematically nice touch, the interplay of light and dark shifts at the house depending on how at home the Kims feel at that particular moment.
Creative nuances such as these based on character and the story’s overall arc are what make Bong’s films such a force to be reckoned with. At times, Parasite can feel like a much subtler version of the escalation through the train cars in Snowpiercer. This film may be less flashy than that first conscious effort from the director to expand his audience to the Western Hemisphere, but it’s no less engaging. The film houses an important lesson on where we put our efforts and how we build ourselves, with Choi, Park, and Song all giving performances strong enough to bring that home and make it resonate.
But all the film’s diverse elements, from its playful visuals to its wicked yet justified violence, wouldn’t sing together without the guiding hand of Bong Joon-ho. This strange, utterly unique meditation of class divides and the anger that arises from them works because the artist behind it is aware of the inherent humanity that connects us all. Parasite pushes us to never forget that.