I’m not a filmmaker, but I would imagine that every director’s ultimate aspiration is to make a movie that is everything a movie can be. But is that even possible? Is it possible for any single movie to be all things at once: socially conscious, morally perplexing, layered, inventive, complicated, universal, accessible, funny, serious, scary, dramatic, weird, heartbreaking, tense, thrilling, violent, sweet, fast-paced, beautiful, well-acted, well-written and entertaining? Can you even think of a movie that covers all of that? The closest and most recent one that I can think of is Get Out, Jordan Peele’s masterpiece from 2017. Well, I’m not calling Parasite this year’s Get Out, but it’s not the worst comparison. Let me put it this way: I thought it would be a long time until I saw a movie that was as many things as Get Out was and achieved it in as such a perfect way, but here I am, just two years later and another perfect movie has arrived. And we totally should have seen it coming.
Writer/director Joon Ho Bong has been building up to this. His slate of films has slowly increased in critical attention, from Memories of Murder in 2003 to The Host in 2006 to Mother in 2009 to Snowpiercer in 2013 to Okja in 2017, Bong has been building a catalog of films that keeps getting stronger and while each film shone a brighter spotlight on the genius of Bong by cinephiles and critics, he still was far from being a household name. His latest film, Parasite, just might change all that. If there is any justice in the world at all, Parasite will finally be the film that recognizes Bong as the master filmmaker he is and officially serve notice to Mexico that Korea just may be taking over as the new home of master film auteurs.
The reason why you probably haven’t heard of Joon Ho Bong (and, if you have, I applaud you and your love of movies) is that he is a South Korean filmmaker whose films are mostly in Korean. It takes a lot to get American audiences to wander outside their comfort zone as far as it would ask them to go to sit through a movie where they have to read for two hours. Some perspective: the highest-grossing foreign language film in U.S. history is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which earned $128 million, which puts it at #483 on the domestic earner list. In second is Life Is Beautiful (1998), which made just $57.5 million (#1,454). And yet both were nominated for Best Picture (back in the days when there were only 5 nominees) and they each won multiple Oscars. So, essentially, this means that only the absolute cream of the crop foreign language films ever make a dent over here, and even those struggle to get noticed by the masses.
It’s not just the fact that Bong makes non-English films, but he also makes very strange films, and if there’s one thing that is more uncomfortable to the generic American moviegoer than having to read subtitles, it’s being challenged. Bong’s movies are weird, dark, violent and socially aware. Snowpiercer is a commentary on class, while Okja is a commentary on the evil of big corporations. While I have to admit I couldn’t get myself to see Okja because of the animal suffering it portrays, I did see Snowpiercer and, even though the movie is in English, has American movie stars, including Captain America himself, Chris Evans, AND has now been turned into a television series airing next year on TBS, it never really found an audience, as it was just too “out there.”
Well, Parasite has finally struck the perfect balance. It has none of Okja’s disturbing images and is much more accessible than Snowpiercer. If this isn’t the movie to finally put Joon Ho Bong on the map for American movie audiences, then I really give up.
As I’ve already mentioned, Parasite is a near-perfect film. From the opening scene, it hooks you with characters that are interesting and dialogue that is smart. We are introduced to the Kim family: mother, father, daughter and son, who all live in the same cramped basement apartment in the poor part of a big city. Right off the bat, we like these people, as they are funny and sarcastic, endearing and cynical. In the span of about 10 minutes, we get to know all four characters as if we’d spent years with them. The banter between them is brisk and smart and the central theme of the movie is set up immediately: these four are desperate to find ways to make a buck (or South Korean Won in this case), not afraid to skirt the law or ethical boundaries to do it. We get the sense that these people would make great con artists if they were just given the chance.
That chance comes when the son’s friend asks him to cover for him on his tutoring job while he goes on a trip. It’s a great opportunity, tutoring college-level courses to the teenage daughter of a rich family. He is hesitant though, not having ever graduated college himself, but his friend convinces him that this family will never know the difference. I don’t want to give too much away beyond this, but I will say that he gets the job, which starts this movie down a frantic, hilarious, tragic, scary and achingly entertaining path that keeps getting twistier and twistier the further we go.
No film, not even Get Out, has held me as captive as Parasite did. It grabbed me from the first scene and didn’t let me go. I was almost spellbound by this movie’s addictive nature. The pace, tone and mood of this movie are all absolutely perfect, in spite of the variances in each. The performances are all outstanding, and it would be difficult to single out one or even two, but Kang-ho Song and Sun-kyun Lee impossible to ignore, even being surrounded by an ensemble that has no weak link.
Ho Bong and his co-screenwriter Jin Won Han deserve every credit (and maybe an Oscar) for crafting a magnificent piece of cinema that transcends genre. Parasite finds a way to be visually stunning, thematically resonant, horrifyingly tragic and fantastically gripping while fooling the audience into thinking they are having the time of their life. Just as in any great movie, there’s so much more than any single thing that recommends it. It’s so much more than brilliant social satire, tragic melodrama, madcap farce and crackling horror. Parasite is just that: it finds a way in and becomes anything and everything you want it to be. It’s the best thing I’ve seen this year and it will take something really special to dethrone it. Make the effort to find this in theatres when it’s released in October. You won’t regret it.