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First run Seenmorethanonce Theater cinema

It’s not hyperbole to call Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho the most acclaimed filmmaker of the new millennium’s first twenty years. Since his début feature Barking Dogs Never Bite (released in 2000) he’s directed seven features over twenty years culminating in his most critically and financially successful movie, Parasite. Bong delights in subverting genres—Memories of Murder (2003) is a serial killer procedural set in a country that’s never had a serial killer, The Host (2006is a monster movie that reveals its creature in full view and broad daylight during the first few minutes, and Okja (2017) is a political, sci-fi spin on a “boy and his dog” tale about a little girl and a genetically engineered super pig.

Parasite is a social satire in the guise of a Hitchcockian thriller. It centers on the family of Kim Ki-Taek, a seemingly hapless bunch of unemployed, self-described “losers” living off their wits in a sub-basement apartment in an impoverished part of town. Song Kang-ho, Bong’s most frequent star—also known for his lead roles in Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area (2000) and Thirst (2009)—plays the Kim’s patriarch. His irresolute son (Choi Woo-shik) and cynical daughter (Park So-dam) appear to be equally unmotivated, but they each possess some unique skills and plenty of savvy. Along with their mother (Chang Hyae-jin) the Kim's lives become fascinatingly entwined with an upper-class family, the Parks.

Like many of the writer/director’s previous films, Parasite is an allegory for the times, and it plays every bit as well in the Western world as in Bong’s native South Korea. And while the themes and subtext of this movie are unmistakable, they are not the simpleminded, heavy-handed metaphors found in his most recent features, the disappointing Okja and the ridiculous Snowpiercer. Ever since The Host, Bong’s movies have had major success crossing over to English-speaking audiences, not only because they’re tremendously entertaining but also because they’re so easy to follow. His narratives move briskly from beat to beat in a linear, step-by-step way, almost as if the director is taking you by the hand. If there’s any backstory the viewer is required to know, he just shows it to you right before you need the information. Thus, he’s never been what I consider a great screenwriter, but there’s no denying his abilities as a director. Aside from the blunt, uninspired Snowpiercer, Bong seems to always know exactly where to place his camera for maximum effect, which is why the comparison to Hitchcock is apt.

Bong’s mastery of the visual medium reaches a new high in Parasite, which takes place largely in the palatial home of the Parks. This set, built by production designer Ha-jun Lee, is a masterpiece of form and function. Truly one of the most memorable movie sets in years, it provides Bong and cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong, who shot the director’s Mother and Snowpiercer as well as Chang-dong Lee’s stunning Burning (2018), with a framework and canvas on which to create images that stand alone and cut together in ways that are exciting, funny, and thematically potent without ever feeling manufactured.

The characters are written and performed far less broadly than in Bong’s previous works and each member of each family is distinctive and sympathetic. This is not the black and white, tongue-in-cheek, good-guys and bad-guys story I often expect from this filmmaker; this is a movie where insights into each character sneak up on you, often when you least expect them.

Like most thrillers and satirical comedies, Parasite requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, but this is given over with ease—until the introduction of a plot point involving Morse code. Even after seeing the film twice, I can’t for the life of me understand the choice to include this ridiculous, credibility crushing narrative device. Introduced late in the picture in the most ham-fisted way, the Morse code is necessary to make the conclusion play out as written. While the spirit of the ending is satisfying, the mechanics of how it arrives are too absurd to take seriously, undercutting the film and preventing it from qualifying as Bong’s masterpiece. At age fifty, this much-hyped filmmaker is still a young man and I’ve no doubt that after the runaway success of Parasite (which was the first Korean film to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes and be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar) he’ll have plenty more opportunities.

Twitter Capsule:
Bong’s best film yet is a breezy yet biting social satire in the guise of a Hitchcockian thriller, with a first-rate cast, phenomenal production design, and a sharp script that almost lives up to its potential.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Produced by Joon-ho Bong, Yang-kwon Moon, Young-Hwan Jang, and Sin-ae Kwak

Written by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won

With: Kang-ho Song, Yeo-jeong Jo, So-dam Park, Woo-sik Choi, Sun-kyun Lee, Seo-joon Park, Ji-so Jung, Jeong-eun Lee, Hye-jin Jang, Myeong-hoon Park, and Hyun-jun Jung

Cinematography: Kyung-Pyo Hong
Editing: Jinmo Yang
Music: Jaeil Jung

Runtime: 132 min
Release Date: 30 May 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1