Parasite is consistently surprising at every turn. Even if you don’t go in cold, knowing nothing about the plot or themes of Bong Joon-ho’s latest, the sprightly storytelling still does its job in keeping you on your toes. If you’ve seen Bong’s English-language efforts Snowpiercer and Okja, you might assume Parasite to be structured over themes of class disparity and the dangers of technology. While you’d technically be correct, those themes are far less obnoxious than they were in Snowpiercer, more cohesive than they were in Okja, and overall the plot- and character-based twists make Parasite into a far superior film.
We won’t dive into those twists, because coming in blind is likely the best way to experience this (any?) film. The plot, in its barest summary, follows the impoverished Kim Family as they grow increasingly resourceful in trying to make ends meet. Their collective path crosses with that of the Park Family, one of Korea’s wealthiest, and from there…
On the surface, Parasite might be this year’s most entertaining film so far. Other contenders for that 2019 title — defining “entertaining” in terms of style, tension, eccentricity — might include Us, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Luce, Midsommar, Monos or Spider-Man: Far from Home. These films exude confidence and don’t falter at a fast pace, brimming not only with action and panache but also with ideas. Parasite is no different, even taken at face value: this is wildly exciting cinema, packed with deliciously devious characters, dark humor, big moments of pure shock and little moments of quiet wonder.
Unlike those other films, Parasite sort of invites deeper reading in the very first scene. What follows is not at all a massive spoiler, but we’ll issue a warning in red italics just in case. In the film’s first scene, the Kim Family receives a gift from Min, the more well-off and college-educated friend of the twentysomething Ki-woo Kim. The gift: a large gray rock. It’s meant to bring them material wealth, Min explains, and for the most part the Kim Family is pleased and thankful. “It’s so metaphorical,” Ki-woo swoons excitedly.
But unlike in Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho manages to simultaneously call attention to an in-film symbol and yet allow it to carry zero weight as far as pure entertainment is concerned. It’s one of the most remarkable and paradoxical instances of film symbolism I’ve encountered in a while, wherein the rock is utterly unobtrusive despite a main character literally highlighting it as a metaphor. Bong’s maturing as a filmmaker and as a writer can be traced to this rock, because in Snowpiercer, the entire movie was a rock.
The further question is inherent: should we read into this instance of class warfare in metaphorical terms? Is there a more human-to-human reading, rather than a somewhat-tired rich-to-poor reading that typically characterizes such films? Similar questions arose last year with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, a film which superficially resembles Parasite in its exploration of those forced to live in the lower depths. While different in almost every other sense, both Parasite and Shoplifters feel relevant to today’s economic and social landscape, to the ways in which those with money and power and comfort look down upon those on the fringes of the same society.
Where Shoplifters aimed to provide truthful, docu-drama insight, though, Parasite aims to dazzle. It’s no less powerful for doing so, and indeed the climax is one which reaches for excitement in terms of both theme and plot. Maybe I’ve been watching too many Stephen King adaptations lately, really none of which manage to lead to a climax that feels unexpected or even worth it. Parasite, for all the tricks up its sleeve throughout the film, saves the best for last.