Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Writing about Parasite is a dangerous exercise. There are so many precise, intricate plot details and stunning revelations that to summarize this film, one is at risk of spoiling the pure sublimity of viewing this movie in a theater. And it should be seen in a theater. Comedy is not always easy to translate across subtitles, however, Parasite does so with ease, and with the benefit of an audience of peers and strangers, you engage as part of a chorus, actively interacting with film. The comedy ignites your wits but the tension and thrills demand your intellect, Parasite so subtly deceives the viewer into becoming a participant in the narrative. Joon-Ho Bong has made many stellar films both in his home of South Korea and recently the United States, his confidence as an auteur has seldom been so palpable. Parasite is a staggering achievement.
The only thing I can encourage about the story is to know as little as possible prior to entering into the film. I had a vague notion that this film was going to be about the relationship between a poor family and a rich one, and that’s about all I needed to know, and I hope that is satisfying, because to explain exactly why you should see Parasite is to ruin the experience of actually watching it. The script is one of the most finely-tuned in recent memory. There is a philosophy of essentialism and efficiency in the storytelling, no moment drags for too long, everything happens just when it should, exposition is handled slyly and is nearly invisible amidst the seamless flow of the narrative. The characters each pulsate and overflow with personality, their motivations are cleverly obscured until they become achingly clear. The characterization emulates a much earlier age of cinema, one where characters were written with specific traits and physical actions that would make them recognizable the moment they enter the screen. More impressive yet is the method in which these aspects of characterization enrich the films commentary on class relations and increase the depth of an already-three-dimensional cast.
The casting is terrific. This is an ensemble piece from beginning to end. Characters drift in and out of focus but someone is always in focus. This is not a film that can be broken down into “heroes” and “villains” or even “rich” and “poor”, the script is so thoughtfully written and the performances so nuanced that the characters transcend their fiction and appear as legitimate people caught in this crazy dance of late-capitalist society. This is transportive cinema. For the two hours that the narrative transpires the only problems in your world are those on screen, the only people you know are those trapped in this insane situation that you have no power of stopping from its inevitable conclusion. That is cinema.
When Scorsese expressed his displeasure with the current landscape of cinema he wrote about the increasing inability of some films to reach “unnameable” areas of existence. That word in particular seemed to ring in my ears as I watched Parasite. It was not a film that could be reduced to good and evil, it was far beyond that. Parasite exists in an area behind our being where we can grip the events, sensations and emotions of the film, but it’s evasive intelligibility rather than distancing the audience brings it closer because the world acts so tangibly similar to our own while discouraging our delight in fantasy. We are simultaneously drawn to the world through its familiarity and repulsed by the unreality of the picture, because that artifice, by films end, has crumbled and dilapidated, leaving the viewer with only a crushing image of our own reality, a projection of an illusion that somehow, when reflected back on itself is more true than it could have been otherwise.
And if all that sounds like a bit much, take comfort in the fact that Parasite is just a stellar film. Whether or not you are approaching this film as a casual viewer, a student of film, a cinephile, or even someone who just enjoys well-told stories, then Parasite is necessary viewing. It will likely be the best film of the year. There may be better films than Parasite that have released or will release this year but there are seldom films that I can recommend to anyone and they’d not only enjoy the film, but feel more fulfilled as individuals at the movies conclusion. Parasite is that rare masterwork that shatters cultural, genre and medium expectations not through capital influence, studio-backing or timely-relevance, but rather through the indisputable nature of it’s quality. Long live Joon-Ho Bong.