The Kim family can’t seem to catch a break. Destitute and living in a semi-basement apartment, Ki-taek Kim (Kang-ho Song), his wife Chung-sook (Hyae-jim Chang), and both their adult children are unable to find stable work in a jobs market where, as Ki-taek says, 500 graduates are competing for a simple driver’s job. Their luck finally changes when a friend suggests young Ki-woo Kim (Woo-shik Choi) poses as a university graduate to take over his English tutoring job while he is abroad. Upon entering the world of South Korea’s elite, Ki-woo smells an opportunity, and soon his parents and sister have each conned their way into the employment of the wealthy Park family. But how long can their luck last in a system made not for the Kims of the world, but the Parks?
It is not often a foreign language film sees a wide cinema release in the UK, but Parasite was a global hit long before reaching these shores. Writer-director Joon-Ho Bong has seen increasing recognition in the West after recent English-language films Snowpiercer and Okja, the latter of which was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. His return to making films in his home country has only seen his international success grow, earning a respectable $20 million at the US box office in addition to receiving rave reviews and winning the coveted trophy Okja failed to secure. Recently nominated for a slew of Academy Awards including the coveted Best Picture, it has placed on many critics’ ‘Best Films of the Year’ lists, and while such lists are largely subjective, it would be hard to argue that Parasite is not deserving of a mention.
The script is superbly well crafted, expertly merging the comedic and dramatic elements of the story and tying them together with the strong socio-political themes. There are no filler scenes, no wasted dialogue, the film always moving apace even in the early scenes that play out more like a low-key drama than the thriller it will eventually morph into. The twists, when they arrive, are inventive and take the story in a completely different direction than what is expected. What’s more, they never feel contrived, but seem to happen organically, making the film feel fresh and invigorating – it is thrilling to see a film like this that refuses to be held down to the conventional thriller beats. Nevertheless, there is one factor every successful thriller must include, and that is tension – something Parasite has in spades. It’s clear from the start that the Kims’ con will go wrong, but not clear how, and that initial tension builds and builds as their position becomes more and more precarious.
A true ensemble piece, Parasite has good performances all round, with each actor handling well the balance between comedy and drama. That said, the best performance spot is snagged by Song Kang-ho as Mr Kim, with the moments of shame he is made to feel due to his poverty being the most heart-wrenching parts of the film.
But it is the focus on themes of inequality and class, and the clarity with which they are integrated into every aspect of the film that ties everything together and elevates Parasite from engaging thriller to meaningful social satire with something important to say. Sure, the Kims may be conning the Parks out of their money, but do we blame them? After all, a parasite doesn’t choose to be such, it just does what it must to survive.
A perfectly-balanced film that is both entertaining and thoughtful, exciting and funny, Parasite is a bold thriller with guts, brains, and a sharp set of teeth. Believe the hype: Parasite is that good.
Parasite opens in UK cinemas on 7th February 2020.