Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, “Parasite” is evoking praise from critics and puzzlement from audiences. Korean director Bong Joon-ho has made a film that defies categorizing. Is it a social satire, a comedy, a thriller, a horror film, a slasher movie or could it be all of these? Bong is not alone in using more than one genre within the same movie. American director, Jordan Peele, also experimented with this technique in his 2017 film “Get Out,” which received acclaim and an Academy Award nomination. That film’s producer, Jason Blum, has said in a recent interview that he plans to make more of these genre-blending movies.
Set in Seoul, Korea, “Parasite” focuses on two economically disparate families. The Kim family makes a meager living folding pizza boxes in their tiny apartment below street level, where a homeless man relieves himself just outside their window. But the Kim family is scrappy and resourceful. The daughter, Ki-jung, and her brother, Ki-woo (who also goes by the name Kevin), are first seen scurrying around the apartment holding their phones high as they look for free Wi-Fi from neighboring buildings. Kevin, a high school graduate but not a university student, is approached by an old friend who has a job tutoring a young girl in a wealthy family. He asks Kevin to take his place while he studies for a semester in the United States. Eager for the employment, Kevin needs documentation claiming that he is a university student. For this he goes to his clever sister, an expert at Photoshopping, who creates an impressive document.
Kevin’s fine manners and gentle teaching skills please the wealthy Park family, who live in an elegant home created by a leading architect with enormous picture windows looking out on exquisitely maintained gardens. Framed on their wall for display is a magazine article featuring tech giant Dong-ik, the father in the Park family. His wife, Yeon-kyo, is lovely to look at and sweet in her demeanor yet slightly nervous as if she has not quite adjusted to the elevated lifestyle her husband has provided his family. She is pleased that her daughter, Da-hye, is perfecting her English, as Mrs. Park, herself, enjoys tossing off popular American phrases in English. The youngest and most eccentric family member is Da-hye’s younger brother, Da-song, who perseverates on his fascination with American Indian artifacts. Suction-cupped arrows whiz through the Park home and Da-song occasionally sleeps out-of-doors in a perfectly crafted Indian tepee. He also fancies himself an artist, a claim his family indulges.
When Kevin tells Mrs. Park that he knows an art teacher who could improve Da-song’s talents with art lessons, she readily agrees to hire this teacher. Mrs. Park finds the tutor doubly appealing when Kevin explains that she also uses art as a tool for psychological and emotional therapy. The teacher he has in mind is his clever sister, who does have a natural talent in art and quickly learns some therapeutic terminology from the Internet, enough to impress Mrs. Park with her knowledge and skills. Like her brother, Kevin, Kijung Anglicizes her name and adopts the name Jessica. It is here that we begin to see the Kim family in their role as grifters. Gradually other family members will insinuate themselves into the Park household, where they provide services for which they are generously paid.
To provide further plot developments would take away from the impact of this unusual film, written by Bong and screenwriter Han Jin-won. Not only is their technique startling and unpredictable, but they also employ a few traditional devices that weave their way throughout the film. A small stone sculpture given to Kevin at the beginning of the movie gains in significance as it reappears in later scenes as both a curse and a talisman of good fortune. Smells emanating from the subway, stink bugs in the Kim apartment, allergies to certain fruits — all of these minor details take on an unexpected importance.
“Parasite” is well over two hours long and not all audiences will enjoy this unusual film spoken in Korean with English subtitles. Also, its startling tonal shifts can be off-putting. But adventuresome audiences may find this movie worth their time and worthy of discussion.
TWO HITS: Don’t Miss it!
A HIT & A MISS: You Might Like it.
TWO MISSES: Don’t Bother.