Parasite November 14, 2019
2 Hrs., 12 Mins.
he cuckoo bumblebee is doomed the moment it’s born. But it works hard to triumph in spite of it all. An outcasted member of the Apidae family — unable to collect pollen, reproduce conventionally — the cuckoo bumblebee has to take matters into its own hands. Typically, a female cuckoo will invade a normally functioning bumblebee colony. She’ll trounce or at the worst kill its queen, then force the latter’s ilk to do her
labor. Once the female cuckoo has gotten what she needs — food, newborns, etc. — she heads out. Her male brood venture out to spread the cuckoo gene. Her females duplicate her behavior. The cuckoo bumblebee is a world-class criminal — the most clever and ruthless of a home invader.
In Parasite (2019), the excellent new movie from writer-director Bong Joon-ho, there too exist social parasites of sorts who, in the film, cunningly infiltrate a home. None, thankfully, are as naturally wicked as the cuckoo bumblebee — they’re more sympathetic than anything. The ones focused on in Parasite are members of the Kim family. Times are tough when we first meet them. Composed of patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), matriarch Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and young-adult kids Ki-woo and Ki-jeong (Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam), the Kims are all unemployed and live in a shoddy basement apartment so dingy that, if a window is even slightly cracked, street scenes become four-dimensional from the inside: exterminator dust leaks in without a hitch; excess water cascades into the kitchen as if the apartment was a mini Niagara. As the film opens, the Kims’ primary source of income is pizza-box folding — something the family is so bad at that, when a higher-up threatens to dock their pay by 10 percent, Ki-woo has to kiss up, attempting to get her to reconsider. To get Wi-Fi, the Kims mooch off stray channels from random pockets in their home. To avert phone plans, they use WeChat to communicate.
Things seem as though they might start looking up early in Parasite when a childhood friend of Ki-woo’s, urbane college student Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), asks if he’d be interested in taking on an English-tutoring position. Min-hyuk as of late has been helping out high-school sophomore Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), though the teacher-student repartee has recently turned romantic. (“When she starts college,” Min-hyuk slyly says, “I’ll be officially asking her out.”) Min-hyuk is due to study abroad soon and knows that Ki-woo could use the financial pick-me-up. (And would likely not meddle with his prospective romance.) Ki-woo agrees. He’ll work under the guise of a college friend of Min-hyuk, despite not being a university student himself. (Ki-jeong helps forge some documents to make it appear that way.)
The Parks are cartoonishly rich. Head of the household Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) is the sort of debonair and successful entrepreneur that gets easily, and regularly, profiled by the likes of places like Forbes. When Ki-woo first enters the family home — the kind of expansive and minimalist space that practically screams that this calm and subtle luxury came with a large asking price — a scheme begins to build in his mind, especially after he learns that precocious youngest child Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon) is in need of an art instructor, or art “therapist,” as the Park’s sweet but gullible matriarch Mrs. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) prefers to say. There are other key roles in the Park home: maid, driver. What if these jobs were filled by the rest of the Kims? Through some shrewd duplicity, the family manages to oust the previous generation of help, acting, almost, as parasites. But like most parasitic relationships, whatever might look like a symbiosis between the Kims and the Parks more likely than not might rot. And besides — aren't the Parks parasitic themselves, with their wealth attained in part due to their exploitation of the working class?
here are other layers and twists to Parasite that I won’t reveal here. Keeping in mind the number of reviews I clicked on before seeing the movie that said usually somewhere in their lead that it’s best to go into the movie not knowing anything about it, I strayed away from anything that might give too many details away. I finally found out for myself that it isn’t so much that the movie is so narratively surprising that to go in as
anything other than a blank slate spoils it. It’s more that watching Bong and co-writer Han Jin-won pivot from tone to tone, revealing new tricks along the way, is to experience such deft filmmaking that there’s a chance knowing too much would give too much air back to our breathlessness.
Bong and Han begin the movie a comedy, breezing to and from pitches. Sometimes it’s slapstick, sometimes it’s screwball, sometimes blackly humorous. Then they end it on a dead-serious tragic note. If this all started as something of a laughing matter, albeit a darkly funny laughing matter, it certainly isn’t after a while. Parasite doesn’t have set-in-stone acts, but the movie assuredly is methodically structured — almost the same way a con gone wrong would be. The first stretch is staccatoed and pointily funny. The second, coming with what’s perhaps the movie’s biggest twist, arrives with a moment that tells us that the fun and games have officially lost their fun. (It’s turned into a game of survival.) Then in the last there’s the requisite occasion of all hell breaking loose. Even after all hell gets collected and put away, though, the damage is too great to pretend as if nothing ever happened.
Bong aesthetically matches the melodies of each act. Act one is energetically edited and quickly paced — in tune with the initial thrills that come when a grifter’s in the process of bilking someone and they’re pulling it off almost too easily. The dialogue has a symphonicness to it — as if every word were meant to precisely either harmonize or rhythmically sync up with the visual notes. In the second act, it’s like a massive bowling ball has been dropped atop the movie. An epiphany is had, but it’s a damaging one that can’t be reversed. Once the third section commences, Parasite has shifted almost entirely. What eventually arrives is a nobody-win scenario reflective of, er, the end of a parasitic infestation. That goes both ways. Yet the movie is never jerked around or rash, as if Bong and Han had thought of a nutty development to implement and were more infatuated with its boldness than its cohesion. Parasite unrolls like a slowly unfurled hand-painted fan. It isn’t until we’ve seen the entire picture that the elements on each piece of paper make total sense.
The film, wonderfully performed by its up-for-anything ensemble, is pleasurable as a straightforward thriller. But Parasite is decidedly also a cerebral movie with a timeless (but especially now) bent. It remarkably captures the distress of being imprisoned in one stratum of the class system and trying desperately to break out of it, to little avail after things at first seem promising. The finale is bleak, but it’s a just-right bleakness. In Parasite, any laughter costs you. Like most things. A