Director Bong Joon-ho sets up multiple laughs in what is ultimately a dark and deeply discomforting look at two differing families.
South Korean cinema isn't exactly what you'd expect to be discussing over a stash of Twizzlers and buttered popcorn. But after 2016's The Handmaiden, 2003's cult hit Oldboy and this year's champion of the Cannes Film Festival, Parasite, it seems South Korean cinema is exactly what you should be discussing. It's not surprising to see why director Bong Joon-ho, best known for Snowpiercer and The Host, has stolen our hearts.
His latest, Parasite is about class, pretenders and love in a dog-eat-dog world. It's also about family bonding through pinpointing the best position to access free Wi-Fi. You've never been so uncomfortable while laughing absurdly.
Two families take our focus, the Kims and the Parks, each from a different class. Kim Ki-taek's lower-class family live in a basement, where they fold stacks of pizza boxes for a living. They need the aforementioned free Wi-Fi to watch American YouTube videos on how to do it at pace. Meanwhile, the rich Parks look for a new tutor to coddle their daughter on her way to university. Through sheer ingenuity, the Kims find jobs in the Park household, with its sunlight-shedding glass walls and three pampered pet dogs. The Parks can afford an entire family to look after their own.
It's Ki-Taek and his family's hustler coolness who provide the biggest laughs, as well as Hitchcockian levels of suspense when their cons go wrong. They may be poor, but they're rich in familial bond. Their family dynamic often plays out in farce-like scenes, with more banter than the Avengers and a ridiculously smooth and funny sequence where they rehearse the cons they're about to swing.
While metaphors for class divides are aplenty, like the stink bug Ki-Taek flicks only to later suffer discrimination for his own "off" smell, director Bong maintains a constant tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. Ki-Taek's son Kevin literally lugs around a large rock and immediately points out the symbolism of the weight he must carry.
All the performances are spot on, particularly that of Choi Woo-shik, who plays Kevin. He's like an older Kevin from Home Alone, one who's successfully bluffed his way through esteemed art galleries for decades. Also of note is Jo Yeo-jeong, whose turn as the delicate, rich and gullible Mrs Park contains enough kind subtleties to prevent her from becoming an over-the-top snob.
There comes a turning point where Boon's trademark mood shift takes us from comedy into deeply uncomfortable territory. Ki-Taek's family find themselves facing questions of morality when they come across another poor family. Their actions lead to some painful self-reflection, which you most definitely share second-hand. Think the exhaustive tension of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, with the squirm of Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster. When the carefully-placed moving parts weave and come together, it brings a psychologically and physically explosive crescendo.
And it all looks beautiful, each scene framed as if through the lens of the iPhone duplicate every character, poor or otherwise, seems to own. As for the Carnival of Animals-type classical soundtrack, its noticeable presence eventually warps effectively into horror movie territory.
Yet the real horror sinks in post credits. Coming away from this film will leave you with empathy for those less privileged, and yet the film toys with the idea that even if you do fake your way to the top, you still may ultimately end up back in the basement.
Worming its way into your heart through humor, a pin-sharp script and biting twists, Parasite's reflection on class structure ultimately leaves you with a queasy and necessary rock in the pit of your stomach.