When Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” became the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it was the worthy culmination of a stellar career.
The South Korean master has rattled off gem after gem: a modern monster movie of “Jaws” meets “Godzilla” in “The Host” (2006), a sci-fi social commentary about class divides on an action-packed speeding train in “Snowpiercer” (2013), and a young girl’s adventure to save her beastly friend from a multinational corporation in “Okja” (2017).
This week, his latest and arguably greatest work “Parasite” finally received the overdue American affirmation it deserves, winning Best Film from the Washington Area Film Critics Association and becoming just the second foreign-language film ever (after Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful”) nominated for the top prize at the SAG Awards.
The story juxtaposes two families of vastly different economic means. The poor Kim family consists of jaded patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), hardworking wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), sarcastic daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and lazy son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). They live in squalor, folding pizza boxes just to make a little dough.
One day, the son’s college-bound friend introduces them to a wealthy family in need of a tutor, the Parks, consisting of tech C.E.O. father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), oblivious wife Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), rebellious daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso) and artistic young son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). One by one, the Kims get closer to the Parks, posing as unrelated individuals in the hopes of getting a taste of the luxurious lifestyle.
To say any more would be a crime. The script, co-written by Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, is so tightly wound with extra layers that there’s no sense in spoilers. Whatever you do, don’t read anything else about the plot. It’s important to go in as fresh as possible to enjoy the film’s juicy surprises, which are unraveled with the craft of a master, steadily building characters into the scheme, inviting our complicity, then yanking out the rug.
It’s the type of construct that surely repays on repeat viewings, as we watch different characters moving in the background of different shots. The physical spaces provide countless possibilities for symbolic interaction with key visual elements that carry extra weight on second viewing, from staircases to hallways, shelves to coffee tables. Only the best directors invite our eyes to scan the composition of rooms for visual clues.
Joon-ho delights in juxtaposing the two families’ living spaces. The Park family thrives in a pristine, luxurious mansion. They enjoy floor-to-ceiling windows with sunlight pouring in. They decorate their rooms with the finest furniture and appliances that money can buy. They have more rooms and floors than they know what to do with.
Conversely, the Kim family lives in a cramped, semi-basement tenement where the only light is a ground-level window near the ceiling. They hang their dirty socks to dry on a junk light fixture. Empty pizza boxes line the walls with cardboard as their only decor. And their toilet awkwardly sits exposed on an elevated loft without a door.
The socio-economic themes recall Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” with impoverished citizens craving the homes of the privileged. There are also echoes of Jordan Peele’s “Us” with dual societies literally forced underground. However, “Parasite” fleshes out its ideas the most clearly, right down to the son’s obsession with Native American culture, suggesting a coming invasion and displacement.
In this light, the most powerful scene is a quiet moment when the wealthy patriarch complains of an odd stench. The poor patriarch looks down in shame, realizing the odor comes from his subterranean living conditions. Not only does it provide teary-eyed empathy, it reveals the acting chops of Kang-ho, who is Joon-ho’s muse after “The Host” and “Snowpiercer.” His standout performance is only rivaled by Lee Jung-eun, who provided the pig’s voice in “Okja” and now plays the Parks’ suspicious maid.
Just when you think the film has reached its climax, Joon-ho has more cards to play, shifting gears from slow-burn suspense to graphic payoff. You could argue that Act Three overstays its welcome, depending on your desire for falling action. This is a mere matter of taste, not execution, as the epilogue delivers a full-circle satisfaction that closes the loop with a closing image that fittingly echoes the opening image.
When the credits roll, you’ll fully understand why it was crowned the year’s best at Cannes. Can it win Best Picture at the Oscars too? As we saw with last year with “Roma” (2018), foreign-language films often get awarded in the Best Foreign-Language category as a way for voters to check the box while Hollywood pictures win the top prize as a self-sustaining tradition of promoting the American movie industry.
It’s doubtful that Korean company Barunson E&A Corp. (distributed by Neon) will bankroll a promotional blitz to rival the investment of Netflix (“The Irishman”), Columbia (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) or DreamWorks (“1917”), but if “Parasite” does somehow pull off the upset, many of us would cheer knowing that the best film won.