I was not looking forward to watching “Parasite.”
Yes, it has a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes, it has cleaned up throughout the 2020 awards season. Yes, my boss, whose opinion I respect very much, recommended it highly. And still I remained unmoved in my dedication to not watching it.
The problem, you see, is the subtitles. “Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho himself acknowledged, during his Golden Globes acceptance speech, that this was likely keeping many American viewers away from his film and hundreds of others released every year.
“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong said.
He’s right. I know he’s right. But after a long day of work, the last thing I want to do is sit down and watch – make that read– a two-hour movie about South Korean class politics.
But then “Parasite” won a whopping four Oscars at Sunday’s Academy Awards – including Best Picture- and the inevitable could not be prolonged anymore. I was going to have to watch and review this thing.
But here’s the thing: “Parasite” is good – not in spite of its cultural perspective, but because of it. It may not be my favorite film of 2019- there are others that have made me laugh more and connected with me more emotionally- but it is impossible to deny Bong’s craft. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film this tightly constructed and deftly thoughtful.
As you’ve likely heard by now, this is the story of two families in South Korea: the Parks and the Kims. The Parks are rich – rich enough to live in a mansion constructed by a famous architect and to employ numerous staff. The Kims are poor- poor enough that they steal Wi-Fi from the café next door and fold pizza boxes for a living. After a chance encounter, the Kims slowly but surely con their way into the Park family and obtain employment for their entire family.
A lot can- and will- be said about “Parasite,” but let’s start here: This movie is fun. Not “fun for a foreign-language movie”, but summer-blockbuster fun. It is kinetic, funny and unpredictable. Within 10 minutes, I forgot I was reading subtitles. This is a story that you don’t just watch but submerge yourself in.
The first hour, which has the energy of a classic con caper, is one of the cleverest and most propulsive hours of film I’ve seen in a while. The second hour tops it handily.
Bong’s script, which is well-deserving of its “Best Original Screenplay” honor at the Oscars, is a wonder, and there is not a wasted moment in it. When we are told that the Parks’ former housekeeper ate enough for two, that is not just a throwaway line. When we learn that the Parks’ son experienced a trauma in the first grade, you better believe that will become important later.
At over two hours, there is not one wasted line of dialogue or shot of the camera. Bong proves himself to be a master of his craft – everything you read and everything you see serves a purpose. I didn’t realize how rare that kind of filmmaking had become until I watched “Parasite.”
Much has been made of how skillfully Bong jumps between genres- from laugh-out-loud comedy to heist caper to thriller. He even borrows some of the visual language of horror in the film’s final chapters. That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air, but he makes it look easy.
Bong’s handling of the two families is equally deft. There are no heroes or villains. Our alliances naturally lie with the Kims, but they test us with every lie and every manipulation. One almost feels sorry for the Parks until you remember how callous and unfeeling they can be.
Whichever side of the class divide you fall on, you will likely find your views affirmed but also tested. Bong isn’t the sort of director to tell you what you want to hear.
If Bong deserves the lion’s share of credit for making “Parasite” work, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few other key contributors.
Hong Kyung-Pyo’s cinematography is mesmerizing and conjures some of the best shots I’ve seen all year, including a particularly stunning aerial shot of a slum flooded after a rainstorm. Jung Jae-il’s score is excellent – moving, beautiful and effective.
The performances are uniformly excellent, but I’ll heap particular praise on the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Kim family (Song Kang-ho and Jang Hye-jin) and the Park family (Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong).
I didn’t realize, pre-“Parasite”, how much time I spent obsessing over the big name stars in American movies – often paying more attention to the actors than their characters. The lack of celebrities- at least American celebrities- allows us to fully embrace these characters. Yes, HBO is remaking this with Mark Ruffalo, but that seems to be missing the point.
It is significant, I think, that the Best Picture win for “Parasite” – the first for a non-English-language film- came the same year that the Oscars renamed their world cinema category from “Best Foreign Language Film” to “Best International Feature Film.”
That word change may seem minor, but I think it reflects a major shift in the way the Academy – and the world- is viewing world cinema. These films are no longer seen as “foreign” or “alien” stories with no relevance to our daily lives. They do, in fact, cross borders and nations with the stories they tell, the craft they use and the lessons they teach. And films like “Parasite” (rated R for language, some violence and sexual content) go a long way toward breaking the one-inch barriers that we create between nations.
“Parasite” is not a South Korean story. It is a human story. That’s why it works.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.