Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Parasite” (2019)

In South Korea, the financially struggling Kim family live in a small hovel below street level, spending their days attempting to latch onto some free wi-fi and assembling pizza boxes for a little extra cash, but a lucrative opportunity soon presents itself when an acquaintance of son Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) recommends him to be an English tutor to a daughter in the wealthy Park family and soon, the family, which includes father Ki-teak (Song Kang Ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So Dam), all devise various ways for all of them to gain some form of employment within the wealthy family through some unscrupulous means and false pretences, all resulting in them enjoying the life of luxury for a while but as certain events unfold and secrets are revealed, they run the risk of being exposed and seen for who they really are.

As an incredibly popular and highly regarded film and then some, it seems to have been over a year since the praise for this film started appearing on social media and during the run-up to its historic win at the Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign language film to take home the big prize of Best Picture, it felt like everyone and their mums had somehow seen this film two or three times already, but with its long overdue UK release date having finally arrived, I of course took the earliest opportunity to go and see it to see if it could possibly live up to the insane amount of hype and praise that it has been receiving. And while I don’t think I can match the stratospheric amount of enthusiasm that other cinephiles have for it, I do agree with the general consensus that Parasite is a remarkable and excellent film – the most deserving of all of 2019’s Best Picture nominees.

Parasite has a great many appealing features that make it such a success but above all, its most positive attribute is its story and script. Penned by Bong Joon Hoo and Jin Won Han, the script is excellent because it takes just the right amount of time for us to get to know the central characters, letting their personalities shine through and treating us to dialogue that’s filled with both humour and pathos, and as it moves into the “meat” of the story, where we see the Kim family enact their shady scheme to ingratiate themselves into the rich but gullible family, the story becomes so engrossing, intriguing, and often deliciously dark; aided by plenty of very clever and absorbing dialogue, we witness the central family doing some pretty reprehensible things in order to ascend to a higher standard of living but they’re the kind of characters who you nonetheless still want to succeed and the audience can take a certain perverse pleasure in watching them put one over on their unassuming employers, since the Kim family aren’t clear cut villains and their words and actions are often filled with black comedy and the central performers make the characters strangely supportable and oddly endearing. It’s truly a very strong script and it fully deserved its award for Best Original Screenplay as the dialogue is clever and the script masterfully balances hefty amounts of drama, comedy and tragedy, never losing its footing and keeping us constantly engrossed with what’s happening.

Many people will praise Parasite because of its themes and messages, it holding a mirror up to the rich/poor divide as it does, and this examination of modern society and class gives the film a distinctive voice that’s constantly interesting to experience, never being preachy or clumsily presented at any time, but while many will enjoy it for its deeper meaning, I perhaps enjoyed it more on a surface level and particularly appreciated the thriller aspects of the film; the film does indeed have a Hitchcockian influence as there’s a plot afoot and certain unexpected events threaten to derail the whole scheme (plus steps and voyeurism and whatnot) and during the middle section, the film plays out like something out of a top tier thriller, which I just savoured so much, getting a kick out of the brilliantly constructed, tense drama and occasional bout of accompanying black comedy, all directed with remarkable, well-honed skill and accompanied by an equally dramatic score. This middle section of the film can also draw parallels with Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, a film that I also really liked, as that too is about a group of poor people who take advantage of a rich person’s kindness and break into their house while they’re away in order to get drunk and have a feast, and as soon as I recognised the similarities, I realised that that was probably why I appreciated this film so much.

Parasite‘s cast is mainly made up of the actors who play members of the Kim and Park family and they’re all terrific, each one making an impact as they imbue their characters with so much depth and deliver on both the gut wrenching drama and the delectable dark comedy; the actors from the Kim family, the ones who we spend the most time with, really deliver the goods as they seem to revel in the mischievous behaviour and wickedness of their opportunistic characters, getting us invested in their plot and endearing us to them despite the things they do, but when things go wrong, they let us see the trauma that they’re going through and we feel their pain thanks to their effective facial expressions, movements and way of speaking. All are great but it’s Park So Dam who perhaps makes the biggest impact as “master forger” daughter Ki-jung because she’s especially devious, sly and manipulative and Park especially revels in her character’s behaviour, letting us see the cunning in her alluring eyes and getting us to also revel in her bad behaviour. Elsewhere, Lee Jung Eun has plenty to do and plays her part of housekeeper Moon-gwang brilliantly, Lee Sun Kyun has perhaps a smaller role than all the others but he’s still great as the father of the wealthy Park family, and Cho Yeo Jeong is perfectly likeable and endearing as the Park family mother, described as “young but simple” and she raises the question of whether she’s nice just because she has money.

The film also succeeds on a technical level as the film is very often gorgeous to look at, benefiting from some top tier cinematography and production design; effectively shot with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio that allows us to take in so much of the locations and characters at once, the crisp camerawork treats us with plenty of beautiful shots, using lighting so very effectively, and the production design is particularly praiseworthy as the central “set” of the Parks’ immaculate house was built entirely from scratch and, to use a reviewer’s favoured phrase, it really becomes a character of its own as we spend so much time there and we really get to know all the ins and outs so that by the end, we end up feeling so familiar with it and feel as though we’ve actually been there ourselves. And as hinted at before, the score is really special as it creates that sense of exquisite tension and intrigue in the more dramatic scenes and elsewhere, it’s generally just so pleasing to listen to, using the orchestral pieces to great effect.

Regarding negative points, I’d have to say that pacing becomes a little sluggish towards the end and, similar to something like Weathering With You, which I saw earlier this year, it doesn’t quite know when to end and it carries on for several minutes too long, often appearing to be on the verge of ending on the perfect note but then going on to introduce another scene. But to be fair, the ending that it does eventually land on is admittedly ideal.

A brilliantly written film with an enticing and engrossing plot, Parasite soars thanks to its excellent direction, lovely cinematography and production design, and its fully developed and intriguing characters who are brought to life by several strong performers.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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