When the trailers were almost all for children’s animations, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from December’s Screen Unseen (a scheme in which Odeon shows previews of films they believe to be future classics for a fiver, the only catch being that they don’t tell you what it will be). I was beginning to worry that maybe I’d found myself at the wrong end of some cruel joke and I was going to end up having to sit through Frozen II. What I definitely was not expecting was to be introduced to my favourite film of the year. With Parasite, writer and director Bong Joon-Ho explores with astonishing directness themes of class, inequality, family and fate in an unpredictable black comedy turned thriller.
The film is about two families at opposite ends of society: the Kims and the Parks. For me, it’s the brilliant set design and cinematography that should be commended for giving us an instant understanding of these households situation. In the opening shot we peer out of the living room window of the Kims’ dirty semi-basement. High on the wall in their home, it sits just above ground level in the street outside and as the camera sinks further down to introduce our protagonist Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-Shik) we find ourselves looking out at the world almost literally from the gutter. The frame is crowded and cluttered as we meet his parents and older sister and the use of a high camera angle serves to physically diminish them, as well as establish their position at the bottom in society. We are later invited to contrast this with the wide, open shots of the Parks’ beautiful hill-top house, flooded with light from ceiling-to-floor windows and oozing luxury and sophistication. The differences in their lifestyles could not be more obvious and there would be no reason for the two families to interact. But when Ki-Woo is offered a job tutoring the Parks’ daughter it sets in motion a series of increasingly ambitious and cunning scams that see him tricking the gullible Mrs Park (Cho Yeo-Jeong) into hiring his sister, father and finally his mother in various service jobs around the house.
The film finds itself taking on the characteristics of a heist movie as we move from the simple forgery of the college degree that lands Ki-Woo his tutoring job to the vast and sophisticated operation undertaken by all three members of the Kim family already attached to the Park household in order to create a space for the mother. By the end the Kims are old hands at orchestrating cunning plots and this is mirrored in the filmmaking; the concise 5-minute montage used to show the planning and execution of the final scheme is faultless. The skilful editing pays constant attention to rhythm in the pacing, marriage with the music, and use of slow motion which makes for a truly mesmerising sequence. The acting is exemplary throughout but Mr Kim’s (Song Kang-Ho) exaggerated facial expressions and comedic delivery help to establish the fun and lighthearted tone. In fact, Bong infuses the cons with lightness so successfully that it’s only when we join the Kims relaxing in the Parks’ living room whilst the Parks are away, congratulating themselves on their success, that we begin to question the morality of what they’ve done.
It’s from this sense of unease that we effortlessly transition into a surreal, edge-of-your-seat thriller within a matter of minutes. As the plot spirals into something darker and more intense, Bong exhibits a masterful command of tone, less switching between comedy and thriller than pulling them both off simultaneously by finding a wicked humour in the disturbing moments. The orchestral score is used to its full capacity to heighten both the humour and the suspense and we’re often forced to reconcile two completely opposing emotions. Any attempt to guess where the film is going is ultimately met with disappointment as we’re treated to a series of increasingly unexpected but never quite unbelievable twists and turns.
Bong exhibits a masterful command of tone, less switching between comedy and thriller than pulling them both off simultaneously by finding a wicked humour in the disturbing moments.
In the end, I think Parasite shows a real mastery of film as a medium. There’s ingenuity woven into every aspect of the production, from screenplay and sets, to cinematography and acting, to music and editing. It delivers a cutting commentary on the unsustainability of class divisions without ever feeling heavy handed and with more nuance than the simple poor=good, rich=bad it could’ve fallen into. While it would’ve been easier to paint the Kims as the undisputed heroes, Bong instead forces you to recognise the messy nature of humanity in all of the characters and leaves you constantly questioning who to sympathise with and who (if anyone) are the “good guys”. Perhaps more important than all of its technical excellence, I enjoyed every second of the 2-hour 15-minute runtime, challenging my long held belief that no film can truly justify being longer than two hours. I’ve yet to see some of this year’s best picture nominees, but as it stands, I truly believe it deserves to make history at the Oscars this year as the first foreign language film to win the award.
Parasite is released in the UK on the 7th of February 2020.
Image: Parasite 2019 by Kinocine PARKJEAHWAN4wiki via Wikimedia Commons