South Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho has been thrilling critics and genre fans since 2006, when he unleashed his rambunctious yet heartbreaking creature-feature The Host. He’s awed us again and again with marvelous movies like the mind-bending murder-mystery Mother, the star-stuffed dystopian drama Snowpiercer, and the whimsical yet brutal fantasy-adventure Okja. By now, when you walk into a Joon-ho movie, you should expect something wildly riveting and wickedly clever. And that’s about all you can predict, because Joon-ho’s stories take audiences down paths twisted and devastating, often just when you think everything might just work out. In this vein, his pitch-black comedy Parasite (2019) might his masterpiece.
Hot off winning the prestigious Palme d’Or honor at the Cannes Film Festival, Joon-ho brought Parasite to the Toronto International Film Festival for its Canadian Premiere. There, a line wound around the block, across the street and down around another corner, made up of people ecstatic to see what this astounding storyteller had to share. From the gasps and cackles that burst like firecrackers throughout the sprawling auditorium, to the rapturous applause that erupted not only at the film’s conclusion, but after a particularly delicious act two gambit, they got what they came for.
But what’s it about?
Written by Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, Parasite centers on the impoverished Kim family who live in a dank basement apartment where they are overrun by pesky stinkbugs, overwhelmed by the rancid smell of piss from the alley overhead, and compelled to steal WIFI from a nearby café. With jobs scarce, the Kims wrangle for cash however they can. So when 19-year-old son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) snags a job working for the posh Park family, Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho), his wife (Jang Hye-jin), and daughter (Park So-dam) join him in masterminding a plot to get each of them employed at the swanky mansion. At first, it’s a just a matter of impressing the naïve mother (Jo Yeo-jeong). Then, it’s winning the favor of her arrogant tycoon husband (Lee Sun-kyun). But before long, the Kims must go to more outrageous lengths to sink their hooks deeper into the wallets of these wealthy marks.
For the first half of the film, Joon-ho offers us the rousing fun of a con-man movie, where we enjoy the thrill of outwitting rich dopes out of their ludicrous wealth. Joon-ho makes working-class heroes out of the Kims by establishing the squalor and indignities they endure alongside their ambitions, which are cruelly simple: a house with sunshine and without stench, access to college, a job where you’re treated with respect. We’re further charmed by their smirking wit, which sparks in family banter and winking arguments. But when they band together for this grand grift, their goofiness and joviality vanishes. And they are exhilarating to behold.
With spirited behind-the-con scenes, Joon-ho teases the puzzle pieces that must fall into place to create their big picture. Then comes the satisfying sensation of anticipation giving way as those pieces coming together. You can almost hear them, clack, clack, clack! But just as the Kims — and we, their audience — think they’ve got it all figured out, Parasite cracks open. It’s not a puzzle, but a puzzle box. And as its secret door stretches wide, we all fall into to a third act that moves, fast and ferociously down dark turns we couldn’t possibly predict. And it’s one hell of a journey, exciting, deranged, and strikingly poignant.
I won’t dare hint at what comes next for the Kims and the Parks. What I will say is that Joon-ho doesn’t give us some cheap thrill with a tawdry twist. He reveals a new layer to the film’s plot and political commentary, turning levels, lights, and water into weighted symbols of power imbalance. He introduces complications that call into question who are the heroes and villains of this film, but allows no easy answers. He takes Parasite from a fun movie to a fascinating one, giving audiences food for thought and a haunting resolution. Simply put, with Parasite Joon-ho delivers one of the best movies of the year, and maybe the best of his career thus far.
Parasite opens in limited release on October 11.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com