Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho has steadily built a canon of masterpieces over the past two decades, genre-hopping from mystery to monster flicks, dabbling in post-apocalyptic horror and animal rights action movies, switching between Korean- and English-language films, all while maintaining his signature darkly comedic tone.
His longtime collaborator, actor Song Kang-ho, first starred in Bong's epic, hilarious true crime murder mystery "Memories of Murder." He's an integral part of Bong's unique style, walking the tonal tightrope of tragedy and comedy. He's starred in every film Bong's made since, including his most recent masterpiece, "Parasite," a slick, Hitchcockian family thriller and a class warfare cri de coeur.
It would be criminal to describe the details of the plot of this deliciously twisty and utterly unpredictable fable. The Kim family, mother (Jang Hye-jin), father (Song), daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and brother Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), live a precarious existence in a damp basement, taking odd jobs to make enough money to get their cellphones turned back on.
One night as they're celebrating the return of stolen Wi-Fi over beers, Ki-woo's friend Min (Park Seo-joon) drops by with a gift and a proposition. The gift is a hefty river rock, an imposing charm intended to bring material wealth. The proposition is a job offer: Min wants Ki-woo to take over his gig tutoring the daughter of a wealthy family while he studies abroad. He assumes Ki-woo will be a safe bet around the fetching Da-hye (Jung Ji-so).
As Min suggests Ki-woo forge a few diplomas, the lilting, whimsical score by Jung Jaeil kicks in and we see the gears turning in Ki-woo's head as he considers the scheme. This is the last time we'll see any real pondering in a film about choices made out of desperation and their consequences. The characters in Bong's films are action-oriented: They act, and as audience members, we have to retroactively fill in their thought processes. Song is an especially instinctual actor: his wide, placid face obfuscating his inner thoughts, his body moving through space seemingly by inertia. Bong deliberately edits out the thinking, planning and decision-making in a morally complex and soulful exploration of the divide between the haves and the have-nots. The story tips, then tumbles down a hill like a boulder.
Ki-woo begins working for the wealthy Park family, who live in an austere modern home. Once he's in, it's not long before his "art therapist" sister is too confidently spouting psychobabble that the sweet, gullible lady of the house (Jo Yeo-jeong), the wife of a tech entrepreneur (Lee Sun-kyun), neurotically eats up. She is kind and sweet, "simple" as Min says, and once the scrappy and resourceful Kims understand the cracks in her veneer, they burrow their way deep into their luxurious lifestyle.
"Parasite" is Bong's most sophisticated film to date, expertly plotted with breathtaking reveals, and shot with a smooth, slippery sheen, each frame and camera movement communicating a subconscious plot twist or theme. Invisible machinations ripple the story along its inevitable path. The ensemble cast is outstanding, their performances both unexpected and deeply humane. The film is riotously funny and devastatingly topical, tugging at the issues of income and class inequality, which motivates everything the Kims do, while the wealthy Parks have the privilege to ignore it all. The operatic, bloody finale and solemn denouement draws the fantasy of escaping one's own circumstances into a sharp relief, ultimately piercing the balloon of comedy, leaving tragedy in its wake, and the sheer triumph of Bong's seventh feature film, his best yet.
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-sik, Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin, Jo Yeo-jeong, Lee Sun-kyun, Park Seo-joon, Jung Ji-so.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho.
Running time: 2 hours 12 minutes.
In Korean with English subtitles.
Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content.