‘Parasite’ review: Bong Joon-ho’s darkly comic thriller is a modern masterpiece (yes, even with subtitles)

The South Korean maestro burrows into Seoul's social hierarchy to create 2020's first masterpiece

“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong Joon-ho said on stage at the Golden Globes earlier this month, as he collected the award for Best Foreign Language Film for Parasite. His latest film, a darkly comic thriller set in Seoul’s social hierarchy, might require us to steady our dwindling attention spans and read along with the story, but it’s definitely worth the effort – Parasite is nothing short of a masterpiece.

It begins with the Kim family, folding pizza boxes to scrape a living in their bug-infested basement home in the South Korean capital. Their dirty window is level with the street and they can just about log into someone else’s wi-fi. For our protagonists, there are tiny glimmers of hope and life above ground that are kept anchored by being able to see people literally pissing on your house or having to crouch on a ledge over the toilet to get a phone signal.

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The Kims might not have much but you get the sense that they’re content with that. They find the positive in situations most would find annoying – when a blast of fumigation seeps through their open windows from the street dad Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) cheerily suggests they don’t close them but make the most of some free insecticide. But their fortunes begin to change when an old friend visits son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), bringing with him a scholar’s rock that is supposed to bring wealth – and an offer to take over his job as a private English tutor for a rich family.

With a college diploma falsified by his Photoshop wiz sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam), Ki-woo heads up – up the steep streets of Seoul and up the class system to its peak. In contrast to the Kims, the Parks are very rich, as exhibited by their spotless, spacious and modernist house with its manicured lawn and floor-to-ceiling windows. Matriarch Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) always seems on-edge, even though she has little to stress about – every menial task in her life is outsourced to staff – but her failure to do any background checks on the people she hires proves fatal later in the film.

Parasite
Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ has already racked up plenty of awards. Credit: Alamy

Once settled in his new job, Ki-woo concocts ways for the rest of his family to take up jobs in the Park residence, without revealing that any of them are related. Ki-jung poses as an unorthodox art therapist “with a special reputation in her field” while, after some elaborate ruses see former employees fired, Ki-taek and mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) nab roles as chauffeur and housekeeper respectively. All is going swimmingly for the Kims until they take over the luxurious home while the Parks are away on a camping trip, only to receive an unexpected visitor who reveals a big secret lurking in the depths of the house.

From then on, it’s not just Yeon-gyo who is on edge. The two factions of the working class we see in the film are embroiled in a very physical battle to rise above each other, feigning solidarity with the other before stabbing them in the back (or throwing them down the stairs). The Kims’ comfortable new life is under threat and, as torrential rain hits Seoul and the sewers are flooded, they race down hills and city staircases to save their few belongings from the now underwater apartment shows just how far they have to fall.

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Part of the brilliance of Parasite is that, while this is an ‘us vs them’ story, it doesn’t pick a side. Instead, Bong puts the flaws of both families on full display – each is as parasitical as the other, the Kims burrowing their way into the Parks’ house under false pretences and the Parks subtly exploiting the Kims while making disparaging comments about them that give themselves a sense of superiority.

A TV spin-off of Parasite was announced earlier this month that will explore some of the movie’s “hidden stories”. That’s exactly the feeling Parasite will leave you with – no matter how many times you watch it (and it’s a film that, as its title suggests, gets under your skin and makes you itch for another viewing), there are still so many more secrets hiding in the shadows.

  • Director: Bong Joon-ho
  • Starring: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo
  • Release date: 7 February 2020
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