Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (2019) is like the wild and crazy evil twin of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Shoplifters.” Both films deal with a family in poverty who resort to extreme measures to survive, but their cinematic methods are polar opposites. While “Shoplifters” is a quiet and subtle film, “Parasite” is a rapidly paced and boisterous dark comedy/thriller. Koreeda makes introspective arthouse family dramas, while Joon-ho is a practitioner of more audience friendly genre films; this is reflected in the drastically different approaches to the topic of class inequality in “Parasite” and “Shoplifters.”
Parasite is about a financially struggling family of con artists who infiltrate themselves into the lives of a wealthy family. Joon-ho’s regular leading man Song Kang-ho plays Kim Ki-taek, the father of the con artists, while Jang Hye-jin, Park So-dam, and Choi Woo-shik play the mother, daughter, and son, respectively. Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong play Park Dong-ik and Choi Yeon-gyo respectively, the easily manipulated father and mother of the wealthy family. Parasite is best enjoyed with less revealed about the plot details, but it is essentially about a power struggle between the con artist Ki-taek family and the prosperous Dong-ik family.
In a way, “Parasite” is like Luis Bunuel’s parodies of class warfare as directed by Quentin Tarantino, as it mixes social commentary with homages to popular genre tropes and scenes of almost cartoonish violence. This is both a strength of the film and a drawback, as Joon-ho’s attempts at creating a deeper social examination of class inequality are not as well executed as his action/suspense set pieces. As expertly crafted as the thriller and suspense aspects of Parasite are, where it falls short on are its attempts at social criticism and character development.
The characters in “Parasite,” from the destitute yet noble Kim Ki-tek to the wealthy but elitist Park Dong-ik and Choi Yeon-gyo, never reach anything beyond one dimensional caricatures. Also, the social critique and analysis of class warfare never penetrates deeper than surface level generalities of the wealthy taking advantage of those less fortunate than them. “Parasite” aspires to be both a mass entertainment thriller, while at the same time being an examination of societal divisions, but it doesn’t offer a more nuanced portrayal of this issue as Koreeda’s “Shoplifters” did.
Joon-ho wants us to feel justified outrage for the crass materialism and insensitivity of the wealthy class, but he does so in an overly obvious and heavy-handed manner. We see scenes of the Dong-ik family wallowing in their material wealth and looking down upon those outside their class, but everything in “Parasite” is portrayed in a black and white good versus evil level, without any shades of grey or ambiguity. In addition, because Joon-ho didn’t take the time to develop his performances beyond caricatures, we don’t have enough emotional investment to care about the characters for the last act of the film to work effectively. Instead, the conclusion of “Parasite,” which takes a turn into soap-operish drama, feels long and drawn out and wallows in sentimentality.
With that being said, where “Parasite” excels at is Joon-ho’s masterful handling of action and suspense scenes. As revealed in his previous films, Joon-ho is an expert at creating tension in elaborately designed set pieces; he does so through ingenious staging of the actors and their movement relative to camera placement and angles. This is best illustrated in a nerve wracking scene where three members of the Ki-tek family hide from the Dong-ik family under a table. Through clever use of dialogue and incisive blocking, Joon-ho creates a master class in ratcheting up tension in a set piece that would have made Alfred Hitchcock proud.
“Parasite” is a nearly great film that is prevented from being a masterpiece through its wobbly character development and strained attempts at social criticism. Joon-ho is still relatively early in his career, with only eight films completed thus far, so he still has time to develop and hone his craft as a filmmaker. Spielberg, who Joon-ho resembles in many ways, also took some time to find the right balance between expertly crafted action/thriller sequences and deep, incisive social critique, so Joon-ho needs to continue to develop as a filmmaker. Once he does master his art, I am sure we will be seeing startlingly innovative films from Joon-ho.
- Film Review: Parasite