I feel like we don’t talk about how special it is to go into a film blind in the modern era of movie viewing. Due to the nature of the constant onslaught of advertising on multiple fronts; the way trailers are cut to market to increasingly disinterested and picky audiences; the interconnectivity of culture through social media and how fast The Discourse™ around any given film runs (I cannot stress enough that Avengers: Endgame is the highest grossing film of all time, unadjusted for inflation, and it feels like it may as well have come out four years ago with great but not spectacular box office), it feels rare for a movie to come out and genuinely be a surprise when you’ve chosen to accept the favorable buzz and sit down and watch it fresh. While there could be better contenders coming up in the later part of the year, Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece, Parasite, may be the poster child for the film to see completely unguarded and unprepared.
Parasite (a cheeky callback and thematically salient reference to his most well-known film, The Host) is Bong Joon-ho’s seventh feature film in nearly two decades and it’s safe to say that at this point, he’s one of the undisputed masters of societal and cultural subtext and the ability to mix tones in a way that can catch even an incredibly focused audience member offguard. His films have operated in two modes up until this point: either somewhat low-key but emotionally arresting stories grounded in real-life circumstances (Memories of Murder, Mother) or high genre pieces that broadly and unsubtly tackle societal issues like class and sustainability (Okja, Snowpiercer, The Host). Yet, they all seem to have the same quality of presenting an idea at the top of the film and then quickly (and either violently or comically) questioning or challenging that very idea sometime later in the movie. It’s not a twist like, say, The Sixth Sense, which has a narrative magic trick, or Inglorious Basterds, where the entire meta text of the movie is put into question. Bong Joon-ho films throw a wrinkle into the fabric to see if you view the actions and choices of the characters and the narrative any differently.
Parasite sets up the audience with a very simple premise. The son (Kim Ki-woo, played by Woo-sik Choi) of a family struggling under the woes of late capitalism — living in a subbasement, folding pizza boxes for abysmal income, and barely leeching wifi off of a nearby cafe — is approached by his well-to-do college friend to take over his tutoring of a rich, naive and hormonal high school student while he travels abroad for a year. Ki-woo takes the gig, posing as a college student and making a big impression on the young girl (Park Da-hye, played by Ji-so Jung) and her well-meaning but wealth-worn mother (Park Yeon-kyo, played by Yeo-jeong Jo). He also notices that in the large modern masterpiece of a mansion, there’s another child in need of a helping hand, a little boy named Park Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung) with some questionably latent artistic abilities. Ki-woo decides that his artistically inclined sister Kim Ki-jung (So-dam Park) would be perfect to pose as an art therapist. From there, the proverbial ball gets rolling and its destination ends up in some expected places and some very emotionally fraught ones as well.
I wouldn’t dare say more than that. The film does such a masterful job letting its initial premise and its characters breath and fully exist before it decides to have some fun. You get to spend time with both of these families and not only see how they contrast and mirror each other but how human they are. The rich family (the Parks) isn’t completely comically vapid or emotionally unaware of their newfound subservient staff — there’s a bit of dimensionality at play (which admittedly makes some of their actions and thoughts worse at times). Similarly, the poor family (the Kims) isn’t painted as paragons of virtue just because Bong is amicable to their plight. They’re flawed, messy and make bad choices and sometimes can’t commiserate with other folks in their economic status. The film’s unfurling of its story is the showcase but these characters are what make it breath.
But what an unfurling it is. Parasite‘s strength lies in just how much the film hooks you into these people and the giant metaphor that’s being built around them piece by piece. It reaffirms and challenges your assumptions in the drop of a hat, which is why I think it’s so interesting to go into a film like this with only the basic premise in mind. This isn’t an “anti-spoiler” screed by any means. I genuinely think we as a culture now put too much weight on the concept of spoilers. Rather, I wanted to highlight what makes a film and a filmmaker like this so special. I wanted to highlight that sometimes you can trust a piece of art and all involved are deft enough to deliver you an experience that’s more than just a thrill if you have a little trust. Sometimes you’ll get something that’ll challenge you intellectually and emotionally AND give you that same thrill. Parasite is one of those times.
Here’s a trailer, that, in all fairness, does a pretty great job of not overexplaining the film:
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.