The yearly film festival/awards season song-and-dance routine that the entirety of the online film press indulges in is starting to become a rather predictable sequence of events. A highly anticipated new film from a well-respected auteur makes its rounds throughout the various high-profile film festivals, it receives unanimous praise hailing it as a new modern masterpiece destined to sweep the awards field, then by the time we reach the thick of the awards race and the general public has gotten the chance to finally see it after hearing all of this unrealistically ecstatic praise for months, that’s when we enter into the next phase of the awards season roller coaster.
After the initial height of praise for the supposed frontrunner has died down over the course of a few weeks is the point when the onslaught of think pieces and Twitter backlash begin to kick into high gear, countering the overwhelming heaps of praise that it had been lauded with since it first premiered. It’s rare for a film with such monumental festival and critical hype to completely forego the latter stage, and in the cases of the two most notable victims in previous years including Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and La La Land, ultimately contributed to costing them their Best Picture wins that they had been seemingly predestined for.
As it concerns Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, this year’s Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival currently with a Certified Fresh 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes through over 100 reviews, it still remains to be seen what the reaction will be for general audiences, but on the basis of pure critical merit alone, Parasite is a rare contender that warrants the overwhelming amounts of praise it has received.
Parasite follows the Kim family, an impoverished South Korean family of four who find themselves in a position to create greater financial opportunities for themselves when they manipulate their way into being employed by the wealthy Park family. As they attempt to continue maintaining their ruse over the Parks, the truth begins to unfold in a relentless series of sadistic and unpredictable manners. To reveal any more would be a disservice to Bong Joon-ho’s masterfully crafted and suspenseful tragicomedy that shocks and surprises at every turn.
Throughout the majority of Bong Joon-ho’s filmography, the ever-present themes of class struggle and the effects of capitalism are consistently interwoven within the text of his work, even when framed in dystopian science-fiction realities that are drastically separate from our own, such as Snowpiercer or Okja, they are always informed by and applicable to these issues’ real-world implications. Parasite returns not only to a more tangible reality compared to Bong’s previous films, but also to his home country of South Korea to study the effects of class and status on the average native family, similar to Alfonso Cuaron’s turn last year from grand, sprawling science-fiction epics like Children of Men and Gravity to a more grounded family drama with Roma.
While the film does have what initially seems like a pretty simplistic narrative, people pretending to be someone that they aren’t in order to get ahead in life, and going to absurdly comic degrees to not expose themselves as frauds – a premise you might expect to see on any number of sitcoms or cartoons – it is taken to such drastic measures that the film feels unpredictable and fresh, even though you may already feel as if you have seen stories similar to this before.
Its core conflict of class warfare and economic inequality is delicately interwoven throughout the progression of these character’s journeys, with early seeds of foreshadowing being planted so subtly and with ramifications that come to fruition later on for a satisfying and logical payoff. Cleverly making insightful commentary on the fact that this class struggle for even the slightest ounce of social stature is one that is being fought primarily between those who are classified within the less economically fortunate classes as they tear each other apart to get ahead of each other, while those within the upper class are completely oblivious to the fact that there is even a conflict that is going on in the first place. It doesn’t make it a point to attempt to vilify the rich, as many stories of this kind might, but rather uses each of the different families’ financial standings as a method of exploring where their primary concerns and priorities lie, which then informs their decisions and mindsets. It’s a rare and unique perspective that offers new backgrounds and points of view to an often overlooked discussion.
While the film and Bong’s perspective towards the material is inherently entangled within the complex socio-political environment of the film’s settings, the film never feels as if it is being bogged down by an overarching statement or message; politics and class structure are used to inform the story, not to dictate it. The film is undoubtedly rich in theme, and those elements of deeper social analysis are clearly present and they welcome discussion, however, it is not beholden solely to those ideas in order to be enjoyed.
The heights of tension and excitement that the film reaches create for absolutely riveting suspense that culminates with such a potent boiling point, that even removed from its overall politically-minded roots, it still stands as a masterclass in storytelling and tension-building that can be enjoyed purely on those merits alone. Some elements of the film’s ending to get a little bit messy, and some specific story points feel rushed through as the film wraps up, but the absolute whirlwind of a thrill ride that this movie takes you on never lets up for a second. Parasite feels like the natural blending of his more mainstream genre hits like Snowpiercer and Okja, and his more grounded South Korean crime dramas like Mother or Memories of Murder, solidifying him as a master of his craft, though he’s already earned that distinction long ago.