What with Bong Joon-ho’s increasing work rate – this film appears just two years after his last, Okja, his shortest ever gap between features – it can be easy to forget that Parasite is the director’s first film made fully within the Korean system in a decade, since 2009’s Mother.
Both 2013’s Snowpiercer, Bong’s Hollywood debut, and 2017’s Okja, the first major film to launch through Netflix – are very fine films, although among the weaker entries in a formidable body of work, with a thematic reach that sometimes exceeds their grasp.
By contrast, Parasite is the work of a director intoxicatingly in his element. In many ways, this feels like the culmination of inimitably Bongian preoccupations: his obsession with psychologically freighted subterranean spaces, stretching all the way back to his debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite; immaculately executed whiplash moments that snap from comedy to tragedy; and a predilection for the surreal in his setpieces. Bong’s sense of the baroque has sharpened since Okja, and Parasite’s finale, involving a conglomeration of beautiful, wealthy people, gains in horror and poignancy from the luridness of its conception.
Bong is operating here at peak craft: the mise-en-scene is dazzling, evincing his flair for witty ensemble staging, then unleashing overwhelming imagery that heightens character and mood. All of this is aided by superb production design. It is also tightly plotted – a rarity for Bong – with a strong comedy of manners influence, a new direction for the director.
Very much like Snowpiercer, the chasm between rich and poor is the leitmotif of the film; it even follows a similar visual schema, and the ‘parasite’ of the title is left deliberately unclear. But there are also distinctive, piquant Korean flourishes that may, or may not, hold a deeper allegorical meaning: multiple allusions to North Korea, and a surprise reference to the 16th century Japanese invasions of Korea.
The characters are acidic creations, yet the film lacks a traditional protagonist: Parasite is a true ensemble work, with the characters driven by collective concerns. The cast is uniformly excellent, although Song Kang-ho does nothing to diminish his reputation as Korea’s finest character actor with his subtle performance. That the high-wire, precarious confidence act of the film’s tone can be sustained is testament to the total commitment of the actors: one only has to recall something like 2010’s unloved The Housemaid, a glorified Korean melodrama with similar setting and themes, to see how something like this could easily fall apart.
There are minor shortfalls in the storytelling. Bong sets up the arc of child character Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) but fails to follow through, and a crucial turning point involving a kick (a recurring motif for Bong) is dubious in terms of its physical staging, the only occasion in which the carefully constructed spatial environment of the film is violated. All this can be forgiven, though, when Bong delivers another of his caustic, haunting endings (in retrospect, perhaps the reason why Okja and Snowpiercer seem like lesser works is that their endings fall ever so slightly short). This is Bong’s best film since 2003’s Memories of Murder, and makes a good case for being the first out-and-out classic of Korean cinema since 2016’s The Handmaiden.