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Parasite

I’ll be honest, I was terrified just walking into this one.

The trailer for Parasite teased a premise about a dirt-poor family lying their way into the service of a wealthy family. That’s a fairly straightforward premise, with obvious possibilities for commentary about wealth disparity. But there had to be more than that, and I was more than a little anxious to find out what more there could possibly be.

To start with, there’s the title. The very word “parasite” conjures images of body horror, of one living being slowly and painfully killed for the sustenance of some terrible monster. Now multiply that by the level of bugfuck insanity one would expect from Korean cinema. And not just any Korean cinema, but the filmography of auteur Bong Joon-ho, he of Snowpiercer and Okja fame.

Put it all together and you get a film overflowing with critical acclaim. Seriously, the praise for this one is practically unanimous, with a Tomatometer at 99 percent as of this writing. Hell, this was the first movie to win the Palme d’Or by unanimous vote since Blue is the Warmest Color back in 2013!

So what exactly is it that we’ve got here? Well, let’s start over and see how much I can tell you.

Our story revolves around two families, each a standard Father/Mother/Son/Daughter nuclear family. The Kim Family is dirt-poor after a long streak of bad luck, unable to find any work aside from folding pizza boxes. (Yes, seriously.) The Park family patriarch is the head of some tech company, so the whole family is living in luxury with their every need immediately tended to.

Long story short, the late-teens Kim son (played by Choi Woo-Shik) gets hired as a new English tutor for the flighty adolescent Park daughter (played by Jung Ji-so). The catch is that to get this job, he has to devise a wholly new identity, complete with a fake backstory and phony documents. But why stop there?

The early-twenties Kim daughter (played by Park So-dam) is a preternatural liar with a knack for document forgery, and the Parks’ toddler son (played by Jung Hyun-joon) is a hyperactive terror who likes to make horrifying crayon drawings. So of course the Park parents (played by Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong) think their son is an artistic prodigy and hires the Kim daughter as his art tutor. After she comes up with another fake identity and more fake credentials, of course.

But do you really think it stops there? Who do you think we’re dealing with?

This whole scheme escalates in a huge way when the two kids conspire to get the Park family chauffeur and housekeeper (respectively played by Jung Hyun-joon and Lee Jung-eun) fired. Through more lies and manipulations, the Kim father (played by Song Kang-ho) is brought on as the new driver and the Kim mother (played by Jung Hyun-joon) takes her place as the new housekeeper.

Got all that? Good.

At this point, you might be wondering how the Park family could possibly be so gullible. Well, it might be more accurate to say that they’re used to living in comfort. They want everything to be easy and painless. They don’t like confrontation and they expect everything to be handed to them with no trouble. They don’t want to bother with interviewing people or sorting through candidates when they could simply hire someone who comes strongly recommended by someone they know and trust.

Moreover, the Parks are so secure in their wealth that it never occurs to them anything could possibly go wrong. Nobody could ever be stupid enough to try and rip them off, and they’re far too smart to fall for any con. So they see what they want to see, believe what they want to believe, and sweep any unpleasantries under the rug. Anything that doesn’t fit their happy and ordered little worldview simply doesn’t exist. So all the Kims need to do is feed into those delusional vanities and the Parks are theirs for the taking.

To be clear, the Parks are never portrayed as cartoonish capitalist stereotypes, but merely as products of their world. For instance, there’s one point in the back half when the whole city is deluged in what appears to be a freaking monsoon. The Kim family is forced to spend the night sleeping in communal housing, along with so many hundreds of others who got displaced or separated from their families in the floods. The Park family, meanwhile, merely sleeps through the bad weather without even thinking or knowing about all those affected. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s easy to understand where both families are coming from, most especially where grifting the wealthier family for shelter and sustenance is concerned.

And what of the Kims themselves? Well, of course they have a looming identity crisis, with the standing question of how long they can keep this charade going. How greedy they can truly afford to get before they reach too far. It’s too easy and too tempting to throw themselves into the lap of luxury, willfully forgetting that none of this is theirs and they got it through dishonest means. Of course this gets even more complicated when the Kim boy starts developing *ahem* unprofessional feelings for his pupil, and the Park boy acts creepy in a way that suggests he may not be your typical hyperactive kid.

Moreover, the Kims have to reckon with the fact that theirs is not a victimless crime. Two people have lost their jobs as a direct result of this con job. Two unsuspecting casualties, thrown to the same wasteland of poverty and unemployment that the Kims clawed their way out of. Employees who not only depended on the Park family, but knew the Parks and their household better than the Kims ever could.

Which brings us to the Big Twist. Of course there had to be some plot twist to kick the film into a higher gear, and whoo boy is it a doozy. How do I put this as spoiler-free as I can?

Somebody wiser than I once said that one of the most central jobs of a storyteller is to give the audience what they want, but not in the way that they expect. In this case, I’m referring to the moment when the charade finally comes apart and all the Kims’ lies catch up with them. If you think you know how that happens, I can guaran-goddamn-tee you that you’re wrong.

The entire back half of a film is one stupefying sucker punch after another. There are plot twists to break your heart, plot twists to blow your mind, and plot twists to churn your stomach. Through the spectacularly bloody climax and right up until the very last frame, the filmmakers show an uncanny knack for knowing exactly when and how to pull the rug out from under the audience.

Alas, while the vast majority of twists work surprisingly well at delivering surprises while keeping a coherent internal logic, there are a few turns and plotlines that fall flat. I’m specifically referring to one character who survives the climax even after what should have been a fatal blow. There’s also a Morse Code subplot with the Park boy that goes nowhere, though it’s nicely appropriated by the Kims later on. Also, while the tutor/student romance arc admittedly has its use, I still feel like I should object to the sleazy cliche on principle.

That aside, this is an extraordinary ensemble cast of compelling and fleshed-out characters. Even more than most, this is a film that lives and dies on the strength of the cast and their interplay. The inter-family maneuverings and manipulations have to be engaging, or the social satire and the whole damn plot fall apart. Just as importantly, the intra-family bonding has to be rock-solid if the characters are going to have any sympathy at all.

Pretty much all of the characters in this movie do awful things as the plot unfolds, and often their only justification is in the welfare of their families. The Kims’ love for each other is their reason for moving the plot forward, and the Park parents’ love for their kids is often the only sympathetic thing about them. This is the beating heart of the story. It’s what makes the first half such an endearing comedy and the second half… well, the second half.

What should you expect from Parasite? You should expect to go into a pitch-black comedy and come out with whiplash. The film perfectly rides the line between funny and horrifying, with the result that there’s no telling which way the filmmakers will go next. It’s a wickedly intelligent film with sharp yet subtle barbs for the bourgeoisie, yet it’s also a deeply poignant film about family. (NOT to be confused with a family film, that’s a crucial distinction.)

This one comes strongly recommended. Definitely check it out when you can.

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