Parasite review – Bong Joon-ho at the height of his powers

This brilliant, genre-defying satire from South Korea is that rare thing: funny, disturbing, and unpredictable in equal measure

While most directors work within genres, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho is one. Those familiar with his canon know he’s been pushing out genre-defying movies ever since he made his strange and audacious debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite; since then he’s gifted us with twisty treats like Memories of Murder, a gripping police procedural with flashes of absurd comedy, and Snowpiercer, an apocalyptic action film set entirely on a moving train. The great joy of any Bong movie, of course, is that you rarely know where it’s headed. Parasite takes this conceit to the next level, resulting in his most unique and uncompromising work to date – confirmation of the director as a genre in and of himself, nailing an idiosyncratic style he has slowly and meticulously built from the ground up.

Whilst Dogtooth, The Handmaiden, and Shoplifters all feel like they’ve been chucked into Bong’s blender, Parasite is a true original. It’s a comedy, a horror, and a social satire, all at once, in that strange way that only a Bong film can be. The story finds a poor family, consisting of husband Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) and their kids, son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) and daughter (Ki-jung), who – lacking full-time employment – have been relegated to folding pizza boxes for a living. But what this symbiotic unit lack in cash flow they more than make up for in resourcefulness and cunning. It’s these skills that come in handy when they meet the wealthy Park clan – an encounter that will open a number of unexpected doors.

Class has always been a big subject for Bong, whose films – Snowpiercer and Okja in particular – found new and (let’s face it) increasingly pulpy ways to comment on society’s divisions. Here the themes of class dominate the goings-on (Parasite is, in itself, one giant metaphor), but are never dealt with in a heavy-handed or soapbox-y way. Instead Bong crafts a relentlessly fun (and occasionally disturbing), detailed, and precisely shot comedy of manners about two very different families coming together in the confines of a gorgeously minimalistic mansion – one that holds so many surprises it seems like a betrayal to go any deeper into the film’s eventually labyrinthian plottings.

Quentin Tarantino once said that whenever he makes a film he pictures himself as a conductor and the audience as his orchestra, cueing them up to laugh, cheer, and gasp, often in the space of a single moment. It’s Bong, however, who proves himself to be the true maestro. As moments of pure hilarity rub shoulders with instances of hand-over-mouth shock, you can sense the director’s joyful and mischievous presence behind the camera at every turn, especially in the film’s gloriously entertaining first half – a feat made possible by way of seamless editing from Yang Jin-mo, a compulsive score by Jung Jae-il, and crisp visuals courtesy of cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo.

Parasite is as elegantly composed and engaging as any film you are likely to encounter this – or any – year, and its immensely talented cast deserve the highest praise for allowing us to feel equal sympathy and distain for their characters, for selling us moments of comedy and melancholy, often in the same breath. My lone reservation lies in the film’s final quarter, which I don’t think is handled with quite the same brilliantly thought-out, precision engineering as the rest. It’s a minor complaint in a major work, though, and one that confirms Bong as one of cinema’s great modern visionaries. Single-handedly he makes the idea of genre seem so reductive. Why have one when you can have them all?

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