Always provocative, Bong Joon Ho has told story after story laced with political commentary. Few artists are as disciplined in their messaging, but the Korean director has consistently used his art form to deliver messages about economic anxiety. What separates director Bong from many of his peers has been his ability to craft intimate, relatable characters within the context of genre storytelling. Whether he’s embraced science fiction, as he did in The Host or Snowpiercer, or told more relatable tales like Memories of a Murder, the director has emerged as an iconic force within the industry. His latest film, Parasite, drops the genre aspects of his career in favor of a deeply critical lens towards the world today. Parasite not only thrives with this stripped-down storytelling, but Bong’s focus on the details and masterful direction make it one of the very best films of the decade.
Parasite follows the Kim family, equally dividing the story amongst its four members. Patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) has gone through life attempting to escape poverty. He lives in a basement below street level with his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), his son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). When Ki-woo’s friend offers him a position to tutor for the upper-class Park family, the Kim family begins to embed themselves within their lives.
Going any further than that would be a disservice to the viewer (don’t worry, we have a spoiler-filled podcast releasing later this week). Bong’s intricate storytelling builds upon itself from the opening moments of the film. His instincts on the when to reveal critical information showcases a masterful raconteur, and Parasite rewards you each step of the way. Embedded within the critical masterwork are layers of criticism towards dozens of entities, while all functioning in service of this unique story. It’s rare to make something so specific, yet so broad in scope within the same stroke.
Part of this skill comes from getting masterful performances from everyone in the cast. There are several standouts, beginning with longtime Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho. Song delivers a nuanced and textured performance that offers him excellent opportunities to steal the show. He takes advantage of these moments to create empathy and tension, earning the audience’s focus early in the film’s runtime. Park So-dam also deserves recognition for her steely performance as the family’s youngest child. She has the best chance of anyone in the family to succeed but does so by shedding her care for other people around her. Park walks a narrow tightrope between unlikeable character and fascinating character performance. Doing so makes her one of the most intriguing characters to watch at any moment.
While the Kim family dominates the story, Bong captures the Park family in vivid detail. Actress Jo Yeo-jeong plays the Park matriarch to perfection. Her perfect blend of privilege and blissful ignorance draws your focus away from our protagonists whenever she enters the screen. She hits soap-operatic levels of hysteria while remaining an easy mark every step of the way. Just as integral to the film’s success is Lee Jeong-eun, a housekeeper who becomes a target of the Kim family. Her turn provides the audience with a creature that you’ll genuinely feel sorry for. She puts a human face on the story and she perfectly disappears into the background of the story when needed.
Bong also pushed his team to create a beautiful world for us to visit. Bong uses tracking shots and angles within the Park house to make sure we know its geography intimately. At any moment, you know where each character is located, and by teaching the audience the basic setup of this house, he creates Hitchcockian moments of tension later in the film. The Kim family’s home is also laid out with great detail, and the production team built an entire city block to bring this corner of the world to life. Bong’s vision of each locale makes sure his audience knows how geographically, socially, and economically distant each world is from each other.
Bong’s precision and specificity in the story and locales contribute to an undeniable fact: he is a master. Few directors can layer so many details in each shot, let alone throughout an entire film. His ability to draw insightful dialogues into his film, and then clash those ideologies in dramatic fashion, creates a unique experience. Perhaps most impressive of all, Parasite rarely loses your attention. As a piece of pure entertainment, I’ve rarely been more hooked onto every line, word, or action.
Parasite will be one of the most rewatchable films of the century, while simultaneously discussing the world of today in vivid detail. Layered with impressive craftwork, including stellar costume design, sets, and sound work, Bong shows off his technical prowess. To combine pure spectacle with intricate political dialogues is rare. The M-word gets tossed around a little too frequently in film communities. Yet there’s little doubt that Parasite earns the title of masterpiece, and will only grow in the public consciousness for decades to come.