At The Movies: Parasite
By Noah Gittell
A great filmmaker possesses the innate ability to make you feel comfortable from the very first frame. You can tell when you’re in good hands, which allows you to relax and enjoy the ride, wherever it may take you. Korean director Bong Joon-Ho is surely one of those greats, but while his films are likely to take you on an incredible ride, they aren’t seeking your comfort. Instead, movies like “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” lull you into a relaxed state with their slick mainstream conventions, only to subvert them so radically you might get whiplash. “Parasite,” Bong’s excessively clever new film, typifies this approach. Every time you think you know where it’s headed, he pulls that very expensive rug right out from under you.
“Parasite” is a snazzy tale of class warfare told through the relationship between two Korean families. The Kims live in a shabby basement apartment, where they suffer the routine indignities of the poor. They are forced to steal wi-fi from a local coffee shop and fight off drunks who urinate in front of their only window. It’s a smart portrayal of how the gig economy affects the have-nots; the only job the Kims can get is folding pizza boxes, and even that gets snatched away from them with little thought or sympathy from their bosses. Their luck changes when the grown son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) gets lucrative job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family, despite having no experience. Sensing opportunity with the gullible Parks, he hatches a plan to get the rest of his family – father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), and sister Ki-Jung (par So-dam) – on the payroll.
Their scheme requires some subterfuge. The Parks’ current driver and housekeeper are framed for minor transgressions so that father and mother can be installed in their place, and the family must pretend to be strangers to each other so the Parks don’t catch on to their ruse. It’s here that we first feel the pressure of the director’s thumb upon the scales. In “Parasite,” the proletariat is clever and cunning, and we root for them to pull one over on the unwitting elite. Bong imbues these early scenes with the sleazy charms of a con man movie, but in glossing over the thorny morality of their scheming, he makes you feel more manipulated than entertained.
When one of the fired employees discovers the Kims’ nefarious plans, she and her husband fight back, and two hard-luck families are pitted against each other, with the right to leech off the Parks hanging in the balance. We feel set up for an explosion of populist fury, but Bong’s righteous anger gets swallowed by his virtuosity. A master of tone, he niftily navigates between genres – there are elements of thriller, comedy, horror, and social drama – but it starts to feel as if Bong is more taken with his own talents than the message, his characters, or even the story itself. Dancing around its themes, “Parasite” keeps teasing some sort of grand statement of purpose, but it never arrives. Even its climactic violence feels more rote than shocking. It’s as if Bong has wrung as many thrills as he can from his story, and all that’s left to do is squeeze a little blood out.
With its ingenious plotting and topical themes, this is a film you should want to spend hours talking about afterwards, but it leaves you with less to chew on that it should. When you’re done with “Parasite,” all that you’ll be able to remember is how good a filmmaker Bong is. With its slick amorality, the actors never get a chance to connect with the audience, and its critique of late capitalism, ostensibly the driving force of the film, fails to land its punches. Boiling anger and masterful technique are powerful intoxicants, but they can overtake a film’s soul. “Parasite,” despite its many virtues, ends up eating itself.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue