Bong Joon-ho is just a brilliant storyteller. His films encompass the hard-hitting issues confronting today’s society and they reek of cynicism, yet they are just fun to watch.
This is the difference between him and other directors, such as Kim Ki-duk, whose films are hard to watch: Bong’s films don’t rattle you and force you to think. They lure you in with interesting stories, get you hooked, then leave you lost in thought about what you’ve just seen as you leave the theater.
This is why “Parasite,” a masterful, humorous and thrilling satire about social hierarchies, is not really the pinnacle of the Korean auteur’s magnificent career. It’s just the latest evidence of his genius.
“Parasite” / CJ Entertainment
The film begins with a poor, jobless family of four living in a basement dump. Patriarch Kim Ki-taek -- Song Kang-ho -- is a shiftless loser who is pushed around by his headstrong wife, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin). They have two children, son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) and street-smart but cynical Ki-jung (Park So-dam).
When Ki-woo is out of cash and luck, his friend gets him a job as a tutor for a wealthy family consisting of Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun); his wife, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong); their teenage daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ziso); and her kid brother, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). Live-in housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun) takes care of them all.
Charming Ki-woo wins the affection of the sweet but gullible lady of the house -- and then some from her smitten daughter -- and realizes that the wealthy Parks could be a meal ticket for his family. With devilish cunning, Ki-jung lands a job as an art tutor for Da-song, Ki-taek becomes their driver, and Chung-sook replaces the loyal Moon-gwang as their housekeeper.
The sequence of the Kim family hustling its way into the Park household is pure gold and is also classic Bong. The scenes are paced well and filled with energy, just enough to have the audience on the edges of their seats while still being lighthearted and funny.
It’s these little sequences that build up the tension. They are also what make Bong such an efficient writer and director. He never wastes a scene -- even expositional scenes, such as one seemingly pointless part of “The Host” that has Park Hee-bong rambling about Gang-du’s childhood, which ultimately serves as a clever transition while revealing the character of the family.
“Parasite” / CJ Entertainment
Choosing a good scene is like choosing sweets in a candy store: There are just so many to pick from. Lee Jeong-eun and Jang Hye-jin are a joy to watch with their hilarious, sometimes borderline maniacal performances, and the young acting pair of Choi and Park really brought their A game.
Lee Sun-kyun is an actor with the range and capacity to pull off a multilayered character and Cho seems endearingly lost as the lovable dunce.
But as always, Song’s performance is the cherry on top. While it’s hard to find anything bad to say about Bong, it is impossible to find fault with Song’s performance. He is an actor who perfectly understands the director’s intent and adds his own magic, as he did with the ingenious touch on the last scenes of another Bong production, “Memories of Murder.”
The amazing thing about Song is that, in some way, the audience “knows” his character before they even meet him. This is something that appeals to the Korean audience, but his acting is natural even as it carries a clear message.
Song’s interaction with Lee’s character and the thought process in his head, along with the impact on him of a “freak” incident that occurs in the third act, show in his facial expressions. Throughout the final act, Song overshadows everyone else, right up to the chaotic climax.
As for the film’s pacing, Bong has an amazing ability to relieve tension and pick up the pace at just the right moment. It feels like being on a mad, thrilling ride without noticing it.
The director is known for the heavy social commentary in his films, which comes through in minute details, and this is the case in “Parasite” as well.
One such detail that stands out is the relationship between Ki-woo and Da-hye. At first glance, it looks like the 20-something man is taking advantage of a minor. But you gradually realize that he is doing so only because she allows it. Older, stronger and better educated, he is but a parasite who has latched onto a young member of the “royal” family -- a disposable and replaceable item, there to satiate her teenage fantasies.
It is interesting, too, that Ki-woo and Ki-jung are given new names. The Park family doesn’t care about “Ki-woo” and “Ki-jung,” but only about “Kevin” and “Jessica,” who serve them from their “rightful place.” They matter only because they are told to matter, which makes the seemingly warm-hearted, gullible Parks the most intimidating people in the film.
The “parasitic” relationship between the haves and the have-nots, which is not confined to the Kim family, is chillingly relevant. The ending makes you think about their relationship and how it is perceived by the have-nots themselves, which in turn makes you think about the social class system and how eerily easy it is for us to accept it.
“This is a film about the respect and dignity of people. ... (Relationships between the wealthy and the poor) can go from coexistence to parasitism depending on how much you respect other people,” Bong said.
A great thing about a Bong film is that it may seem far-fetched and absurd, but when you think about it, it is freakishly grounded in reality. This makes it not only the director’s story, but each viewer’s story as well.
“Parasite” is a perfect film or one that is very close to it. My only issue with all the praise being showered on the Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival is that this isn’t the first time Bong has scraped the skies for cinematic immortality. This film is just Bong being Bong: on top of his game and pitch-perfect.
“Parasite” opens in local theaters Thursday.
By Yoon Min-sik (email@example.com