Review: 'Parasite' is a fantastic first foray into the Korean film genre

by James Cronin | 11/12/19 2:00am

The first time I was exposed to Korean films was a glorious experience. I don’t remember how old I was, but it was probably in high school when a buddy and I watched “Oldboy” for the first time. I was blown away. I had forgotten just how wide the spectrum of emotions a movie can make you feel was, and it felt like I was falling in love with movies all over again. 

The second time I was exposed to Korean films, a similar feeling was elicited from me when I watched “Train to Busan.” At that point, Korean movies were batting a thousand. Then, “Snowpiercer” came along — a movie I instantly fell in love with that I didn’t originally realize was a Korean movie because it was in English and had many big-name western stars in it. Eventually, I learned that “Snowpiercer” was directed by Bong Joon-Ho, one of the most talented directors/writers in South Korea and, therefore, the world. He’s made a lot of really well-received movies in South Korea but only a few like “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” ever managed to gain some buzz in the states. 

Every South Korean movie I’d ever seen was awesome, and as a result of that, I was incredibly excited to check out Bong’s latest film, “Parasite.” I won’t mince words; “Parasite” is the best film of 2019 that I’ve seen so far (although I admit I have not seen “The Lighthouse” yet), and anybody who either speaks Korean or can read English subtitles should see this movie as soon as possible. 

“Parasite” is a story about two families — the Kims and the Parks. The Kim family is down on their luck. They’re all unemployed and, despite how hard they try, they can’t seem to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and escape their situation. One day, a friend of Kim Ki-Woo, the oldest son (portrayed by Woo-sik Choi), puts Ki-Woo in touch with a rich family in need of a tutor, the Parks. He accepts. From there, shenanigans and some stuff that I wouldn’t describe as shenanigans ensue. I won’t explain anymore because I thoroughly enjoyed, going into this movie, knowing absolutely nothing about the plot and I highly recommend you do as well; the originality of the plot is an essential part of the experience of watching “Parasite.” It reminded me a lot of “Get Out” at first, because “Parasite” is the first film since “Get Out” that thoroughly intrigued me because of how unique its story and storytelling is. 

Where “Get Out” was a thriller with a powerful message about race, “Parasite” is a thriller with a powerful message about class, and not a ham-fisted one at that either. If you’ve seen any of Bong’s movies, you’ll know that they’re often centered around a critique of capitalism — and the class struggle that comes with it. “Parasite” is his most nuanced and successful critique of capitalism and a lot of that is in the directing, but mostly in the writing and performances. 

One scene that really struck me showed the Kim family hiding under a table while Mr. and Mrs. Park lay on their couch snuggling. Mr. Park, unaware of Mr. Kim’s presence, talks about Mr. Kim, who is in his employment as a driver, and how he’s good at his job but smells like an old radish. Mr. Kim hears all of this, and we can see that this visibly upsets him. From his facial twitches alone, we get a sense for how deep a sense of shame it brings him that he stinks and can’t help it because of how poor he is, and how embarrassed it made him feel to have his children hear this, too. 

Another poignant scene that comes soon after showcases how the two families react to a heavy rainstorm, with the Parks being able to sit inside their warm, peaceful, above-ground house and enjoy the rain. Meanwhile, the Kims’ area of town is flooded, leading them to frantically do whatever they can to preserve what items of value could be found in the semi-basement apartment they live in. 

The movie doesn’t portray the rich as evil or the poor as lazy — it’s not that simple. The realistic depiction of the class struggle is enough to shake whatever notions of financial stability you may have thought you had before — the two families live in entirely different worlds, and yet, the only thing inherently different about them is how much money one of them has. However, the film shows that the barrier between classes is great enough that there is nothing the poor can do to escape their predicament other than fight one another for the scraps of the rich. 

The directing is phenomenal: Joon-Ho did an absolutely fantastic job, and I’m not surprised at all. There are so many shots in this film where the way they’re framed can really only be described as art. This movie was so incredibly aesthetically pleasing that my brain thought it was watching ASMR soap-cutting videos for two hours. The cinematography wasn’t just pretty though; it was also purposeful. The ways characters were blocked alone delivered more information to the audience than the entire scripts of most movies this year. For instance, one scene that caught my attention showed Ki-Woo’s sister Kim Ki-Jung (portrayed by Park So-Dam) sitting on the toilet seat of her flooded apartment, dejectedly smoking a cigarette while watching the waters rise higher and higher. This scene subtly showing her isolation and despair is a stark contrast to most other scenes featuring the Kim family — they are usually close together like sardines in their tiny apartment — showing both their poverty and their solidarity. This is yet another distinction from the Park family, who are always splayed about in their spacious home. Joon-Ho displays a near-complete mastery of the craft, and I could feel the passion he instilled into the movie in every little detail. 

I thought all the performances were great, and that’s all I’m really prepared to say about that. The Kim family patriarch, played by Kang-Ho Song, was especially good. Song managed to balance the stereotypical stoic patriarchal character with enough comedic tinge so that I never knew what would happen next — would he make me laugh, or would he shock me? I was told by someone from Korea that he’s like the Korean equivalent of Robert DeNiro, so I guess it should probably go without saying that he’s pretty good.

The one problem I have with the movie is that it was a little slow around the start of the second half. It had a really enjoyable momentum up until that part, but with a runtime of two hours and 12 minutes, I felt like there were parts in the second half that could have been edited out or condensed. The ending is explosive though — which more than makes up for the lull — but the lull is still there.

“Parasite” is a great movie. It has a strong message, a smart script, beautiful visuals and great performances. I have not seen a movie like it in a long time, and that’s a shame, because it’s movies like “Parasite” that make me love film. Korean movies have never let me down, and if this movie is your first foray into the genre, you will leave very happy.