“Parasite,” writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s gripping magnum opus, made history in 2020 when it became the first non-English language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Nearly three years later, the film’s status as a modern-day classic was solidified when it entered the once-in-a-decade Sight and Sound poll as the 90th greatest film of all time.
With these accolades and dozens more (including a Palme d’Or victory at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival), it can be easy to overlook the film itself — which begs the question: what exactly is “Parasite” about?
If you’ve seen “Parasite” before, you know how difficult it is to answer such a question. Bong’s mutating masterpiece is an ingeniously plotted swirl of genres. It’s at times a pulse-pounding thriller, a darkly hilarious comedy, even a quietly observed domestic drama.
Without giving away spoilers (it’s best to know as little about the plot as possible), the film centers on the Kims, a poor family who finds a way to “infiltrate” a rich family’s home. Devising a facade in which they each pose as domestic help looking for jobs (a chauffeur or a tutor, for example), the Kims get hired on by the wealthy Park family and burrow themselves deep within their decadent home and lifestyle.
The two groups, as vastly different in social and economic status as they are, find a way to coexist, at least for a time. Their relationship is deemed symbiotic, but the inordinate benefits that the Park family reaps from the subordinate Kims reveal the power balance to be quite parasitic — a notion that later manifests itself in a shocking series of twists.
Again, without providing spoilers, suffice it to say that “Parasite” mutates into something completely unexpected. Thanks to Bong’s mastery behind the camera, buoyed by an immensely talented ensemble cast (led by frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho), “Parasite” seamlessly shifts from comedy to drama to horror (and back again), all while raising serious questions about class division and elitism.
And that, in essence, is where the genius in “Parasite” resides: in its cinematic sleight of hand. The movie is, in many ways, a magic trick — an illusion that morphs right in front of us, becoming more elusive the closer we get to it.
It’s a multi-layered story whose layers regenerate as soon as they are peeled away, suffusing its moments of dread with disarming humor — only to twist the knife in when we’re too busy laughing to notice.
“Parasite” returns to the big screen starting Friday, May 26, as part of the Varsity Cinema’s New Sights and Sounds series.
— Clinton Olsasky