The strange, disturbing, wonderful film Parasite (2019) from director Bong Joon-ho isn’t your typical Oscar bait: a Korean dark comedy parable about systemic economic inequality? This unlikely pedigree makes its recent Best Picture upset all the more surprising, but make no mistake: it’s definitely worthy.
Ki-woo (Choi Woo-Shik) is one of the Kims, a poor family of four that lives in a basement apartment in Seoul. One day, Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-Joon) presents him with an opportunity: taking over as tutor for the young daughter of the wealthy Park family. Ki-Woo isn’t qualified, but fortunately for him the Parks’ matriarch Choi Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) isn’t particularly bright, and Ki-woo charms his way into the job. He’s not about to stop there, though: the tutoring job becomes the springboard for a family-wide grift that ultimately brings his father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hie-jyn), and sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) into the Parks’ orbit. But the Kims’ resourceful, deceptive effort to improve their lot in life, for all its short-term perks, leads to tragic repercussions for both families — and exposes the inherent injustice and arbitrary privilege of an uncaring capitalist society.
Even though I had no expectations going into Parasite, it still managed to defy my expectations. My previous experience with Bong’s work, Snowpiercer, left me impressed, even as I found it an sloppy science fictional mess. By comparison, Parasite feels mature and sure-handed, particularly in its grasp of unsettling metaphors, and its jarring fusion of jaded humor and social critique. By turns it’s smart, funny, sad, suspenseful, and ultimately unnerving. What a striking, unpredictable accomplishment.