‘Parasite’ Reviewed: A Cinematic Sleight of Hand

“You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan at all.”


So says Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), the patriarch of the impoverished family at the center of “Parasite,” director Bong Joon-ho’s deliriously funny and darkly disturbing thriller about the unforeseen misfortunes that can alter life’s trajectory.


For Ki-taek, making plans seems to have been a futile exercise in his life. He is an unemployed car driver, forced to live in a “semi-basement” apartment with his evidently skilled and intelligent, yet economically crippled, family. The destitute clan carries out odd jobs to survive, folding pizza boxes for low wages and scrounging for public Wi-Fi signals in lieu of exorbitantly priced internet connections. A way of life such as this was likely never in the “plan” for Ki-taek and his wife Park Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin).


And yet, as it so often happens in the movies, a reversal of fortune comes (literally) knocking on the Kim family’s door.


That fortune ostensibly comes in the form of a stone, delivered to Ki-taek’s son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) by Ki-woo’s friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon). Offered as a parting gift before leaving to study abroad, Min-hyuk explains that the stone is a “landscape rock” that brings good fortune, and even wealth, to those who hold it.


During this farewell visit, Min-hyuk also urges Ki-woo to consider taking his place as English tutor to Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the daughter of the neighboring, wealthy Park family. Doing so would mean having to pose as a college student, but Ki-woo embraces the facade, as does the rest of his family in different roles of perfectly realized deceit.


Soon enough, Ki-woo and the rest of the Kim family fake their way into various jobs for the Parks, burrowing themselves deep within that family’s decadent home and lifestyle. However, it’s apparent that the gap between the rich and the poor remains as wide as ever, even for “the help,” with the demarcating lines drawn as if in bold, permanent ink (the admonishment “don’t cross the line” is repeatedly invoked by the Park family). 


Still, the two groups, as vastly different in social and economic status as they are, find a way to coexist, at least for a time. Their relationship is deemed symbiotic, but the inordinate benefits that the Park family reaps from the subordinate Kims ultimately reveals the power balance to be quite parasitic — a notion that later manifests itself in a shocking series of twists.


Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin and Park So-dam in “Parasite,” directed by Bong Joon-ho.


Now, I could go on describing the ensuing narrative twists and turns ad nauseam, but doing so would be a disservice to Bong’s impeccable mastery of space, pacing and tone — filmic elements that the veteran director seems to manipulate at will. Like Ki-woo’s aforementioned “landscape rock,” which can be a symbol for prosperity on one hand and a conduit for pain and trauma in another, Bong allows his film to effortlessly change shape, to shift from comedy to drama to horror, all while raising serious questions about class division and elitism.


In other words, “Parasite” is a film that mutates. It constantly reinvents itself throughout its runtime to both entertain and provoke its audience — often in the same scene, at the same time.


Take the Park family’s lavish home, for instance. The same space, unchanged in its physical aspects, takes on entirely different symbolic meanings, morphing from a comforting oasis of respite to a dangerous maze of confined corners and darkened shadows within a moment’s notice.


Of course, Bong’s adept framing and unceasing command of light help imbue meaning into these otherwise meaningless physical spaces, much like Ki-woo’s otherwise meaningless “landscape rock.” Bong’s acute mastery of tactile compositions, of textured surfaces and deep depth of field, is often used to add symbolic significance through sensory detail (one particularly powerful sequence involves a rainstorm whose terrifying destruction mutates into nostalgic acceptance, with Bong’s framing placing visual emphasis on one home’s lost items and, by extension, detached memories).


These tonal permutations are so naturally embedded in Bong’s screenplay (co-written by Han Jin-won), as well, that the film shifts between generic modes with incredible ease and fluidity. Repeated viewings reveal that these shifts occur with regular subtlety, as moments of character development and even comic relief doubly serve as invisible tension building that is only invoked later on in the film.


And that, in essence, is where the genius in “Parasite” resides: in its cinematic sleight of hand. Bong’s twisted tale of class and greed is, in many ways, a magic trick — an illusion that secretly morphs right in front of us, becoming more elusive the closer we get to it. It’s a multi-layered story whose layers regenerate as soon as they are peeled away, suffusing its moments of dread with disarming humor, only to twist the knife in when we’re too busy laughing to notice.


From its breezy moments of comic interplay to its rush of genre thrills to its unexpectedly poignant emotional center, “Parasite” is a mutating masterpiece that grips you from every possible direction, sinking its scolex deep into your heart, mind and soul.


— Clinton Olsasky


“Parasite” is currently playing at the Fleur Cinema & Cafe.