Well, this is a bit embarrassing. After making a better Cadillac than General Motors in the form of the Genesis G90, the Koreans have now gone ahead and made a better movie than Hollywood can. “Parasite” isn’t just a perfect antidote to the cultural poison of capeshit and Diverse Ghostbusters — it’s a forceful reminder that the most compelling art examines the human condition, not the superhuman. It is also a masterclass in how to create a film in which not a single frame is wasted.
WARNING: Spoilers for the first half of “Parasite” ahead, not much more than what you would get from watching the trailer.
This is a tale of two families, very much not alike in dignity. The Parks live in a hilltop stunner of a modern home ostensibly designed by its prior occupant, the “famous architect Namgoong.” (This is a nod of the head to filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho’s previous effort, Snowpiercer; in that film, “Namgoong” is played by the fellow who plays Kim Ki-taek here.) Mr. Park is a wealthy tech entrepreneur who is driven in an S-Class Benz and who simultaneously obsesses over “trashy girls” while demanding that his hired help not “cross the line”; his wife is a day-drunk who suffers from anxiety; their children are hothouse flowers.
The Kims, by contrast, are stuck in a semi-basement apartment on the literal wrong side of the track. The parents are unemployed scam artists, the son has failed the university entrance exam, and the daughter is a Manic Pixie Korean Dream Girl with a smoking habit and a supercharged superego. When young Kim has a chance to gain Mrs. Park’s trust as a tutor for her daughter, he wastes no time bringing his family in on the con.
The first half of the movie has the feel of a lightweight K-pop comedy, much like the disposable fare you can watch on the headrest screen of any Korea Air flight — but no sooner has the viewer been lulled into complacency than Bong Joon-Ho puts the pedal to the proverbial medal, at which point you realize that the whole thing was a setup in more ways than one. Make sure you’ve made your trips to the popcorn stand and the bathroom ahead of time, because there’s no rest until the very end, and the characters are handled with a lack of sentimentality that would give George R.R. Martin apoplexy.
Along the way, “Parasite” offers some genuinely gorgeous cinematography. Every shot is framed with precision, whether it’s a pan view of the (CGI-generated) Park home or the Kim daughter smoking a frustrated cigarette while sitting on an overflowing toilet. If you thought that “Joker” was carefully filmed — and it was — then “Parasite” will fry your brain. Nearly every scene could be an art photo by itself. The mood of the film is so powerful that it can’t even be shattered by the occasional bit of half-witted subtitling — you get a few directly-translated phrases like “fanboy personality” instead of their true English-language equivalents.
What makes the movie truly shine, however, is its unflinching look at the class and economic divide between the two families. Korea does not have the, ahem, blessings of diversity which have been showered in such incalculable magnitude upon the United States; there is little distinction between race, ethnicity, and nationality in the divided country, and a Korean citizen would treat the idea of a white person becoming “a Korean” as the setup to a joke of some sort. (See You’ll Never Be Chinese for details on a similar, but not identical, mindset.) Consequently, the Koreans are free from the modern American tendency to make race the center of every single conversation and concept. The Parks are rich, the Kims are poor, but the unsteady concepts of “privilege” and “entitlement” never enter into it. Both patriarchs are self-made, but Mr. Park made himself a success while Mr. Kim made himself a failure. “People who take the subway have that certain smell… That smell crosses the line,” Park notes, and Kim flinches. There’s a resentment here, justified or not, on both sides, and it will require action.
If the tension of “Parasite” comes from that inevitable class conflict, much of its joy comes from a similar push-and-pull between comedy and drama. There’s a bit of seriousness behind even the most broadly scripted scenes, while perhaps the most pivotal moment in the film occurs courtesy of a slapstick physical gag right in the middle of a potentially violent confrontation. No American film in recent memory can match this; one wonders if it is because of the broad variety of intelligence and acculturation in our modern moviegoing audience. The “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” both made a habit of placing comedy in the middle of drama and vice versa, but they had a much tighter demographic focus.
It’s not easy to see “Parasite” at the moment; its distribution is limited to arthouse theaters in Middle America and limited screening times everywhere else. For those of us who care about cinema, however, it is worth the effort. Give it a look.