There is a moment in Parasite where everything changes. I won’t tell you how, or why, but at some point, everything you think you know about this movie goes out the window. It morphs into something darker, more complex, and somehow even more entertaining than what came before. It’s exhilarating, unexpected and, frankly, wild.
In a perfect world, you’d go into this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it. And yet, it’s been hard to escape the hype around Parasite, ever since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. And I’ll admit, I was sceptical. A movie that sustains a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating after over 100 reviews, wins the Cannes Palme D’Or by unanimous vote, sells out festival screenings in minutes, and causes people to wait in line for standby tickets four hours in advance, has a lot to live up to. But director Bong Joon-ho’s (The Host, Okja) latest film really is that good. So good, in fact, that it’s the kind of movie that marks time. There is your life before Parasite, and your life after Parasite. It didn't go on to win awards at the SAGs, Golden Globes and BAFTAs for nothing.
Set in Seoul, South Korea, Parasite begins with the travails of the Kim family. Unemployed former driver Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives with his wife, Choong-sook (Jang Hye-jin), their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-ski) and daughter Ke-jeon (Park So-Dam) in a bug-infested basement apartment, where they fold pizza boxes for a local company to try and make ends meet. But when Ki-woo’s friend suggests he take over for him as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family, the Kims see a once in a lifetime opportunity. One by one, family members make themselves indispensable to the Parks’ daily lives: Ki-woo, who adopts the English name Kevin, introduces Ke-jeon as a friend and potential art therapist named Jessica; Ki-taek replaces the Park's personal driver after a not-so-accidental firing; and following a scarring incident involving peaches, Choon-sook takes over for the amiable housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun).
In that sense, the Kims are literal parasites, latching onto the Parks for a quick payday. But while another movie would either celebrate or condemn that behaviour, Parasite is not in the business of judgment. Nothing is simple here — something is no sooner sublime then it’s grotesque, things are hopeful and then disastrous. What matters is how the characters navigate the space between those extremes that are, in fact, so closely tied to each other.
At no point do the Parks realise that the people who have conveniently entered their lives at this coincidental juncture are related. They’re used to relying on word-of-mouth recommendations, a system that keeps their circle as insular as possible. “They’re rich, but still nice,” Ki-taek tells his wife at some point in the film. “They’re nice because they’re rich,” she retorts. Therein lies the crux of Parasite as a parable on class struggle: There is no rich without poor, and no poor without rich. The two live in symbiosis — organisms that feed off each other to maintain the balance. But in Parasite, that balance gets thrown off, and as a result, all hell breaks loose.
It feels wrong to pick stand-outs in such a powerful group of actors, but Song Kang-ho (on his third collaboration with the director), Choi Woo-sik, and Park So-dam are absolutely mesmerising. And though the Kim clan get the majority of showy moments, the Parks hold their own. Jo Yeo-jong gives one of the most destabilising and multi-layered portrayals of a housewife as Park Yeon-kyo. The way she carries around her white Pomerians! Obsessed.
Bong deploys his visuals for maximum impact. In a recent interview with Vulture, he revealed that each scene is blocked out and shot in a very specific fashion. Unlike most directors, he doesn’t play around with shots from multiple angles and then pick one to use in an edit — what you see is his one and only vision.
In this case, what you see tells you more about what’s going on than what people are actually saying. Just take the Park’s sleek, tasteful house, essentially a main character in itself. On the surface, we see clean lines and expensive furnishings — the pinnacle of aspirational living. But within, the house conceals a much darker truth, one it’s literally stacked on top of. Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (Snowpiercer) builds each scene so carefully that you could pause any frame, and find some visual element to parse through.
And believe me, you’ll think about it. Parasite is incredibly fun to watch, and an experience unlike any other I’ve had in a cinema before. But when the lights turn on and you go out into the world, you’ll find it’s still stuck in your brain. It’s name should have been the first hint — Parasite is part of you now. Good luck freeing yourself from it.
In cinemas from 7th February