Bong Joon-ho is one of the best filmmakers working today, and his latest, “Parasite,” winner of the Palme D’Or (basically Best Picture) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is yet another example that hammers that truth home. It reaches our shores as an SM Cinema exclusive, one that you should take advantage of, because rarely do we get such a singular vision in our cinemas.
It can be tricky trying to talk about “Parasite” because ostensibly the best way to see it is by going in blind, with no real expectations. But in the interest of giving an idea of what the film is about, the story concerns the down-on-their-luck Kim family, squeezed into a tiny underground apartment always in danger of being urinated upon by drunkards. Unemployed, they do odd jobs to make ends meet, but a friend of son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) presents an opportunity when he gives the chance to take over tutoring a high school student from an affluent family, the Parks. Eventually, Ki-woo is able to suggest employment for his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and the Parks and Kims begin to coexist together in a relationship you might gather from the title of the film is not symbiotic.
That’s really all that should be provided because the film takes a hard swerve in the middle and though it begins as a sly, clever black comedy and social satire it mutates into something almost fable-ish by the end. And when that turn comes, Joon-ho is able to sustain the tension in impressive fashion, leaving audiences squirming in their seats, riveted from scene to scene. To say the story is unpredictable is almost superfluous; even if it were predictable it’s the skill Joon-ho has with the film language that makes everything so efficient and memorable, from the use of music (or absence thereof), very careful shot selection and movement, the amazing performances he’s able to get from his performers (his mainstay Song Kang-ho great as ever), and the masterful maintenance of a razor-edge note of suspense. Parts of the film unfold like a slow-motion horror, even if it’s not really horror per se. If you’ve ever seen Takashi Miike’s “Audition,” you might have an idea what kind of change you’re in for.
Apart from the superficial reality of the story itself, “Parasite” is also layered with social commentary, the class divide between the Parks and Kims a stark relief. The reason the hard swerve is so effective is because Joon-ho and cowriter Han Jin-won have laid the groundwork in the prior hour by showing us the Kim family dynamic, easing us into a lull. Which makes the later events a stomach-churner, mixing inevitable eruptions with unpredictable violence.
Laced with his trademark bursts of comedy, “Parasite” marks Joon-ho’s return to his native Korea (after directing “Snowpiercer” and “Okja”), and is able to toe a line between multiple points: thriller, family dramedy, social satire. It’s also an invigorating film, a tale told expertly by a master at the top of his game.