Director Bong Joon-ho is one of cinema’s most eclectic filmmakers working today. What makes his work stand out so much is his assured directorial hand in mixing genres that usually do not associate with each other and yet somehow, he executes them brilliantly. But no matter what genre he works in, he always manages to implement slapstick humour as a means of conveying how flawed humanity can be; and it is a testament to his talent that his contributions even work at all.
His impressive resume so far includes films like the strikingly dark comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite, the comic-confronting crime thriller Memories of Murder, the blockbuster monster film The Host (not the film starring Saoirse Ronan, thank goodness), the old-fashioned mystery-noir Mother (not the Darren Aronofsky horror parable), the dystopian epic Snowpiercer and the action-adventure fable Okja.
With his latest film, the family tragicomedy Parasite, he strays away from big budgets and copious use of CGI and returns back to familiar territory; focusing on character dynamics, social critique and dark comedy. Will the film be as successful as his previous endeavours?
Frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho (last seen in Snowpiercer) plays Ki-taek, a former valet driver whose family of four is close, but hopelessly underemployed; resorting to folding pizza boxes just to make ends meet. Without any money or prospects, they hustle as best they can to scrape up the money to survive in their dilapidated subterranean apartment. One day, hope comes in the form of an unusual offer (via cameo by Park Seo-joon) as the son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik, last seen in Okja), is recommended for a very well-paid tutoring job.
Though Ki-woo lacks a university degree, it turns out his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) is a master forger and soon, bearing a fake degree, he is being interviewed at the luxurious home of the very wealthy Park family. Ki-woo gets the job as an English tutor, teaching Da-hye (Jung Ziso). During his time, he quickly realizes that the Park family could well prove to be the solution to his family’s money problems. But as the Kim family manage to weasel their way in, the more they begin to realize that that there is more under the surface in the Park family home.
It warms my heart to say that Parasite is not only Bong’s best film to date, but it is also one of the best films of 2019. Although it has a fantastic cast who all give exemplary performances, this is Bong’s show and his maverick direction and clever screenwriting is what makes Parasite latch on to audiences.
His modus operandi for implementing social critique into his storytelling is still strong, as he brings a much invigorated visual sense, thanks to his directorial eye and the strong contributions from cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo and editor Yang Jin-mo. Scenes such as a tracking shot showing the long stairway down to the ghetto town where the Kims’ live; a clever scene transition that involves the shot being completely “submerged” into another scene; a scene involving a short pan where a guest comes over to the Kim home contain so much visual information; such as the divide between the rich and the poor as well as fantastic foreshadowing, in terms of fates for certain characters.
But as much as there is social critique in the film, director Bong is insistent that it is just icing on the cake. The storytelling is masterful and Bong’s handling of tone is so assured that it becomes an emotional roller-coaster. When the second act twist is revealed, it never feels jarring due to the humanity in the hilariously sadistic and unpredictable nature of the storytelling.
The violence, while brutal, is never dulled or obscured, as Bong shows it in full; much like all the flaws and oddities of human behaviour. The film’s pacing is so fast; director Bong explores the themes and ideas efficiently, sifting through the 132 minute run-time with ease. Even if the effective coda pads the film close to its breaking point.
With the use of broad slapstick humour, Bong is able to explore characterizations (like the running gag involving body odour), foreshadowing (a simple visual gag involving someone hitting their head under a cabinet) and dramatic stakes (a family fighting over a phone is a particular highlight) in such a way that it becomes becomes remarkably human.
Considering the dark subject matter of the film, the humour never feels out of place due to the wonderful orchestral score by Jung Jae-il (which evokes high culture that creates an amusing contrast to the on-screen hi-jinks from the Kim family) and it compliments the storytelling by strengthening the social commentary and the empathy for the characters. Even if the comedy peaks towards farce, thanks to a scene that pokes fun at North Korean news reporters.
The cast all give brilliant performances that compliment Bong’s direction and give the film the punch it needs. On the Kim family side, Song Kang-ho consistently delivers in both comedic and dramatic fronts as the deadbeat patriarch of the family, Ki-taek — even when his character gradually becomes more seething over time; while Jang Hye-jin, who gained 15kgs for the role, is amusingly impulsive and acerbic as Ki-taek’s wife, the former hammer throw athlete Choong-sook. As for the children, Choi Woo-shik (who last appeared in Bong’s last film, Okja) is very diverting as the naive, yet conniving son Ki-woo, the ray of hope of the family; while Park So-dam (who has given great work since her memorable performance in the horror flick, The Priests) is hilariously crafty as the daughter Ki-jung, the artist of the family.
On the Park family side, Lee Sun-kyun (fantastic in the crime comedy/thriller A Hard Day) is entertaining as the highly privileged Mr. Park, who perfects the arrogant swagger as the man of the Park household. Cho Yeo-jeong (brilliant in the erotic thriller The Concubine) is a total hoot as the incredibly gullible and oblivious Yeon-kyo, the wife of Mr. Park; Lee Jung-eun (who worked with Bong in the crime drama Mother) is both enjoyable poised and possibly unhinged as the caretaker Gook Moon-gwang; while the children played by Jung Ziso (aka Hyun Seung-min, stellar in the indie drama Daughter) and Jung Hyun-joon hit their mark.
Parasite is director Bong in top form; a sadistically funny and dramatically sound cinematic experience that is sure to shock, provoke and linger due to its wonderful performances, audacious storytelling, pitch-black humour and incisive social critique. Highly recommended.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Parasite will be in cinemas on the 27th of June, thanks to Madman Entertainment.