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Review: Parasite (2019)

Parasite (2019)

Directed by: Bong Joon-ho

Premise: An impoverished family manipulates a wealthy couple into hiring all of them as drivers, housekeepers, and tutors for their children without letting on that they are related.

What Works: Parasite is a tale of two families: the Kims who are poor and live in a crowded basement apartment where they struggle to get by, and the Parks, an affluent couple and their young children who live in a lavish home. This film is highly satirical but it is different from a straightforward satire in one important respect. In most satires the characters are one-dimensional and symbolize a concept; characters in satires rarely achieve self-awareness and are often objects of ridicule. While the characters of Parasite are terrible and ridiculous, they are also sympathetic and complicated. Everyone in the Kim family has some depth and they encounter moral and ethical conundrums that they don’t know how to resolve. Parasite has a way of throwing the viewer off; it starts as one kind of story and then shifts directions while still feeling like a cohesive whole. That’s one of Parasite’s most impressive qualities. This film manages a lot of different tones, mixing comedy and drama together, and the humor and the tragedy enhance one another rather than cancelling each other out. Parasite’s skilled management of its story, tone, and characters is in service of a political theme. Bong Joon-ho is known for embedding socio-political commentary into his films such as Okja and Snowpiercer but with Parasite he is a bit more perceptive and skilled. The political content is mostly unmissable (and it isn’t so specific to South Korea as to go over the heads of non-Korean viewers) but Parasite’s politics are also more nuanced than in Okja or Snowpiercer and the ideas are embedded into the drama. Bong leads us to his conclusions in the non-didactic way of a master storyteller. Parasite intertwines the lives of the Kims and the Parks but it isn’t simply a portrait of populist rage against the wealthy. The movie is instead a complex portrait of greed and what people will do to hold onto what they have. And as a story Parasite is interesting in the way it thwarts the character’s goals. Stories are generally about protagonists pursuing a desire and make the audience care about whether or not the characters succeed. Parasite is unique in that it questions what the characters want instead of taking it for granted. This film portrays the human element of a political concept which is exactly what good drama excels at doing.
What Doesn’t: Parasite violates some of the conventions of narrative filmmaking; the story has no single protagonist. The Kim family, as a unit, is a collective protagonist. The characters also aren’t very sympathetic, at least not in an easy, populist way. The Kims deceive people to get ahead while their employers are oblivious but not overtly bad people. The ambiguity is the point but as a result Parasite challenges some of the ways mainstream audiences are accustomed to consuming stories.

Bottom Line: Parasite is smart, funny, tragic, and outrageous. The movie is highly entertaining which makes its political observations easy to take but it is also a subversive picture that questions who and what we value.

Episode: #775 (November 10, 2019)