The Great Owl’s review published on Letterboxd:
Kim Ki-taek, played by Kang-ho Song, struggles through a meager day-to-day existence inside an insect-infested basement-level apartment in a working-class district of Seoul with his wife, his twentysomething daughter, and his college-age son, all of whom half-heartedly scrape by with short-lived low-paying jobs and obsess about the best places for connecting to the unsecured Wi-Fi networks of their neighbors. A glimmer of hope for the Kim family surfaces when the son, Ki-woo, acting on a friend's tip, forges fake university student papers and scams his way into employment as an English tutor for the teenage daughter of the upper-class Park family in their opulent modernist-architecture mansion, despite the fact that he has no such education. Through a series of gleeful heist-like schemes, the entire Kim family follows suit and assimilates their way into Park home, with the daughter posing as an art therapist for the young Park son, the mother taking over as the housekeeper of the mansion, and even Ki-taek himself easing his way into the fold as the chauffeur.
An uncannily symbiotic relationship develops between the conniving Kim family, working under assumed identities, and the Parks, who are preoccupied with status and privilege, but nonetheless gullible because of their propensity to view the world through the glazed eyes. When our endearing four swindler antiheroes discover a secret about the Park mansion, however, all hell breaks loose and the fragile interdependence erupts into horrific mayhem.
The humor-laden 2019 South Korean thriller, Parasite (Gisaengchung), with its labyrinthian twists, its subversive social satire, and its macabre horror-inspired finale, wins my vote as the most purely enjoyable cinematic experience of the year so far. Although I relish in the inherent joy of movies in general and am adept at finding something to love about even the most mediocre releases, I still crave the surprise element of stumbling across truly great films that keep me guessing from the opening moments onward. Everything about this motion picture is a grand slam home run, and I hope that well-deserved award recognition will greet it on these shores.
This film is not the first rodeo of director Bong Joon Ho when it comes to bringing knife-edged social commentary to the masses in the guise of riveting good-natured entertainment. Several years ago, I was awestruck by his 2006 monster movie, The Host, where, in the aftermath of a grisly riverside attack by a giant amphibious creature on a crowded city populace, multiple government agencies form covert task forces and script fake news stories to counter the threat while the creature continues to roam around in plain sight during daylight hours to prey on citizens.
This time around, Bong uses dark comedy to tackle the ever-widening gulf between socioeconomic classes, where the wealthy, while well-meaning, are loath to allow the downtrodden into their midst, and the have-nots, in turn, are often far from innocent with their tactics to gain a foothold on the steps to the good life. The forced coexistence between the rich and the poor, outlined here by the ingenious ways that the Kim family cons their way into the lavish home of the Parks, is depicted in a universally relatable way. I am pleased to see that Parasite is finding an audience here in America, where capitalism has become increasingly predatory, and where the myth of the “self-made man”, who drives to work on tax-funded roads built by blue-collar workers, is protected by tax-funded police forces of underpaid officers, was educated by underpaid teachers, and drinks water protected by agencies operating on shrinking budgets, still perpetuates.
Class warfare satire is nothing new in cinema, of course, but I tip my hat to the seemingly effortless ways that Bong pays homage to classic movies while bringing new visual flourishes to the table. The nonstop euphoric energy of the first half, as we are introduced to the Kims, is reminiscent of the wonderful screwball comedies of the Great Depression that were helmed by the likes of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra. Once the proceedings take a bleakly serious turn, astute moviegoers may be reminded of Akira Kurosawa's urgent 1963 police procedural, High and Low, which used a kidnapping plot to outline the disparity between an executive protagonist in a hilltop mansion (“Heaven”) and the lost souls on the squalid streets below (“Hell”). Bong takes these well-visited concepts and makes them all his own with contemporary fittings, as illustrated by the set designs of the Park house and its contrasts with the sewage-filled commercial districts of the city.
I love how Parasite does not oversimplify its examination of those on either side of the class spectrum. The Parks, especially the neurotic wife played by Yeo-jeong Jo and the introspective husband played by Sun-kyun Lee, are not uncaring people, but their subconscious mannerisms make it clear that they hold themselves above others. The Kims, for whom we are cheering during most of the story although we know that they are scam artists, are, in turn, not above displaying the same callousness that the poor often attribute to the rich, as noted during one unforgettable sequence when they are faced with characters who are even worse off then they are on the scale.
One of the reasons why I love watching movies is because they allow me to “meet” good people, or, in this case, flawed people who nonetheless earn my empathy. Cynical viewers may find that the 132-minute Parasite overstays its welcome during its last few oddly heartfelt moments, but I wanted to spend more time with the Kims and the Parks. I also cannot help but love a movie that features weaponized peaches as a plot device.