Nothing can match the audacity of a desperate family, and nothing can equal the resulting chaos when everything falls apart.
That’s the central conceit underpinning the heart of Parasite, a Korean satiric black comedy still at cinemas that you’ve either heard about by now, or been told to watch by a friend. It’s nominated at the Oscars today for Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and a swag of other awards, and if it doesn’t win at least two of those, it will be a genuine travesty.
The stakes, as with all great films, start small. Kim Ki-woo is a struggling son, having failed university four times and being born into a poor, unhappy, unfortunate family with no status. Their home peers into a dank, destitute alley, a squalid basement where Wi-Fi reception is available only in the top corner above a cramped toilet and their kitchen window is a prime target for urinating drunks.
Don’t put a sign up, father Kim Ki-taek tells the family, since it’ll only make matters worse. That’s the lot the Kim family have in life. But by the movie’s third act, these troubles are astonishingly quaint.
(As a small note: if you haven’t seen or read anything about the film by this point, stop reading now and do not watch the trailer. It’s a vastly better experience without it.)
It all starts with an easy decision. Ki-woo’s friend Min is tutoring high schooler Da-Hye from the wealthy Park family. Leaving to study in America, Min asks Ki-woo to fill in, believing Ki-woo won’t make a pass at Da-Hye while he’s gone.
Min’s wrong about Ki-woo, too, but that quickly becomes the smallest of problems.
The matriarch of the Park household, Yeon-kyo, introduces herself in the creepiest of ways. After being awoken from a slumber outside, she insists on observing the first English lesson with a creepy wide-eyed stare that would fit at home in any good horror flick. Ki-woo passes the test, and having gained her good graces, begins talking to Yeon-kyo about the artistic talents of the Park’s youngest son, Da-song.
Naturally, after photoshopping Ki-woo’s credentials for the tutoring job, Ki-woo’s sister Ki-jung – going by the name “Jessica” – is recommended as the perfect candidate for the job. And so Parasite truly begins, with the destitute Kim family executing a plan to replace every servant in the Park household with themselves, creating fake identities along the way and hatching increasingly ingenious schemes to lift themselves out of their squalor.
Parasite succeeds because it knows when and how to turn the knife, using the right amount of anxiety to ratchet up the tension as plots threaten to unravel. It’s carried by exceptional performances throughout, particularly from Ki-jung who smoothly transitions from a chain smoking, hardened sister to a sleek, autocratic art therapist exercising total dominance over the Parks and the troublesome Da-song.
It’s Da-song that sounds the first alarm, of course: after the Kim family successfully gets themselves fully employed by the Park household, Da-song immediately notices that all the Kim’s smell the same. It’s a reminder of the divide between the two families and the lives they lead: everyone smells the same thanks to the inescapable stench of the slums, permeating everything they wear.
But all of this does nothing to describe what Parasite morphs into by the second and third acts. Knives Out is probably the closest film in terms of pacing the moment-to-moment jokes, although a lot of Parasite‘s humour comes from the absurdity and twists rather than direct dialogue between characters.
Parasite is peerless in how it ramps up the tension, though, and it also has the benefit of being an extraordinarily well shot movie. Stairs feature as a constant visual motif throughout, not just in highlighting the difference between the two families and their respective status, but also for some exceedingly good gags.
Slow-mo video gets rolled out sparingly to great effect, and director Bong Joon-ho ensures that Parasite never strays from the core belief that reality is cruel, unfair and raw. The adherence to those tenets kick in hardest in Parasite‘s final act, doing an excellent job of keeping the audience guessing and providing a fitting ending.
If you can’t get to a cinema now, Parasite is available to rent through Google Play or YouTube for $5.99/$6.99 (SD/HD). The film is up for six nominations at the Oscars today, including Best International Feature Film, Best Editing, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Production Design and Best Original Screenplay.
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