Photo | Barunson E&A
“Parasite,” that mysterious, subtitled film that won Best Picture at the Oscars among many other awards, is possibly best experienced without context. But do not dare skip it because you don’t know what it’s about. Just go see it, and either read this before or after, but not during, because it has subtitles, so you have to read those. It is a dark comedy set in contemporary South Korea, and it is about a poor family taking advantage of a rich family, hence the title.
The economically disadvantaged Kims — two college-aged kids and their parents — all live together in a little, semi-underground apartment and, in a terrible economy, are disastrously underemployed and just scraping by. Their only source of income is assembling pizza boxes, and they are barely succeeding at that when the son, Ki-woo, gets a job opportunity from a friend. Assuming the name Kevin and armed with fake college credentials dummied up by his sister, Ki-woo takes his place in the mansion of the wealthy Park family, as the tutor to their lovely teen daughter.
The sardonic and assured first third of the film is a sharp, satisfying social satire, as “Kevin” creates and seizes more employment opportunities for the rest of his otherwise hapless family, who prove that manipulation is one job skill that is always in demand. Every minute of “Parasite” is visually and thematically powerful, and the innate sense of superiority that informs every aspect of the Parks’ lives is brilliantly expressed, just as the constant striving of the Kims is subtly but clearly everywhere. Bong Joon-ho, the film’s celebrated writer and director, draws their mutually parasitic worlds with total precision and mastery.
As an exploration of the fraught upstairs/downstairs, master/servant relationship, “Parasite” is essentially a stabby, contemporary Korean “Downton Abbey.” But after brilliantly setting up the Kim and Park relationship, the dread that has been seeping into the film starts to overflow on a cataclysmically rainy night. I don’t want to turn this into an essay (actually, I do!) but the use of levels, spaces, stairways, foreground and background action and just the framing of this film is brilliant and riveting.
The film’s tone ranges from bleakly satirical to faintly tinged with horror, but it is the visceral physical horror of the all-too-real world. The sense of smell figures prominently throughout the film to signify the inescapable stigma of one’s social status, while characters literally live on very different levels. Their struggle to climb is endless.
To place “Parasite” in context with the other Best Picture nominees, its strength is not just the total mastery on display, but its complete originality. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” was epic and pretty terrific, while my deep and abiding love for Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” is no secret. Unlike Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” though, “Parasite” is utterly new, like nothing you have seen before. It was thrilling and unexpected, and enthralling on a cerebral level while remaining suspenseful, frightening and simply bizarre.
This is the kind of film you will be thinking about for a long time after it ends, and if someone asks you if you have seen it, you will not have trouble remembering the answer. It is unforgettable. There are plenty of good formulas for films out there, and plenty of reliable, well-known stars to act in them, but “Parasite” has none of that — at least to American audiences.
It’s a breath of fresh air or, given the film’s themes, “fresh” might not be the right word. It is bracing, audacious, jarring, challenging and exciting, a devastating social satire realized with precision and intelligence in every perfectly constructed frame.
“Parasite” is playing at the Crescent Theater.
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