Heady thriller “Parasite” employs an amalgam of comedy and tragedy in its dissection of two families’ competing perspectives of wealth disparity. Director and co-writer Bong Joon-Ho’s (“Okja,” “Mother”) first foray into American cinemas since 2013’s controversial “Snowpiercer” release, the South Korean film re-establishes its filmmaker as one of the medium’s premiere voices.
The Korean-language film, which premiered in Chicago Oct. 15 with English subtitles, made the festival rounds this summer, culminating in a Palme d’Or win at Cannes.
Incorporating allegorical social commentary and hard-boiled thriller filmmaking, Bong helms a tensely tragic narrative following the cash-strapped Kim family’s employment foibles.
Unemployed driver Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is struggling to make ends meet when his son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-Shik), lands an interview for a job tutoring teenager Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so).
After being impressed with his first tutoring session, Da-hye’s mother, Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong), hires Ki-woo, who quickly notices the Parks’ expensive lifestyle and abundance of hired help. Seeing Ki-woo’s new job as an opportunity for their own employment, the Kims execute an elaborate scheme allowing them to piggyback onto Ki-woo’s newfound success.
Co-written by Bong and Han Jin-won, the film’s script doesn’t directly pits the Parks and Kims against each other. Instead, the film operates on separate levels for each family, still giving them the opportunity to bump heads, but only occasionally.
The film balances the Kims’ incessant fear of being exposed for their misdeeds with a quotidian approach to the Parks’ story. While the Kims walk on eggshells, the Parks maneuver the social and logistical minutiae of their lives, usually too busy to acknowledge their hired help, let alone suspect them of wrongdoing.
The Kims only become a commodity worth acknowledging when the Parks need something done, whether it’s Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), tutoring their son or Ki-woo and Ki-jung’s mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), making their family dinners.
Otherwise, they’re forgotten, dismissed to their derelict basement apartment that’s right across town but might as well be on a separate plane of existence.
The downtrodden Kims wear their struggles on their brows and in the musty scent their apartment gives them — noted by Yeon-kyo’s husband Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) — but the Parks ooze young wealth. The Kims struggle compiling outfits for work and relying on free Wi-Fi to use their smartphones, while the stylishly dressed Parks want for nothing.
Song’s masterfully restrained performance leads an array of admirable turns from the film’s cast. Both families feel uniquely genuine, but Song stands out as the stoic leader of the Kims. He nods, chuckles and mumbles his way through much of the film, but his mannerisms reveal the cracks beneath the veneer.
Ki-taek puts on a brave face, but Song portrays the head of the Kims as unable to fully obscure the uncertainty and repressed emotions he lives with.
As Ki-taek quietly seethes, family members bounce dialogue off each other with the familiar exasperation of siblings and parents cooped up in one house for a little too long. Song’s unspoken rage and frustration emanate through his eyes, intensifying as the film progresses
Bong deftly synthesizes the film’s social commentary with its genre trappings, spinning economic subtext into the fabric of an intricate, thrilling yarn. And yet, for all of its precision and narrative focus, “Parasite” is a film built on conflict.
The Kims and the Parks embody two different ideologies, and Bong doesn’t shy away from the natural conflict that arises from those ideologies when the time comes. The film’s thriller framework is no bait-and-switch, but Bong lets the tension build steadily, mainly focusing on character moments.
Within its thriller framework, the film is wide-scoped, subtle and bitingly funny, but it’s also character-focused, overtly allegorical and deeply sad.
“Parasite” brings emotional depth and an oddball’s mindset to its layered examination of wealth inequality.
“Parasite,” rated R, is playing in theaters nationwide.