Starring Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Lee Sun-kyun, Park So-dam, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin, Jung Hyeon-jun and Jung Ziso. Written by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. 133 minutes. 14A
(4 stars out of 4)
In his notes at Cannes for his Palme d’Or winner “Parasite" — which would go on to make a historic Best Picture win at the Feb. 9 Academy Awards — writer/director Bong Joon-ho described his film as “a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains.”
That’s one way of looking at it, although the movie tests the definitions of comedy and tragedy, not to mention the film’s title as well.
The South Korean auteur has never seen a genre he didn’t want to mess with: “Okja” wasn’t just a children’s tale, “Snowpiercer” wasn’t just sci-fi and “The Host” wasn’t just a monster movie, to name a few of his earlier works. Bong’s films all contain a deep empathy for the underclass and an appreciation of the essential absurdity of life.
So it is with “Parasite,” his seventh feature and grandest mind-screw yet, which he co-wrote with Han Jin-won, his assistant director for “Okja.”
“Parasite” begins as social satire, as a family of grifters in a South Korean metropolis connive to blend their lives with those of an unsuspecting rich family whom they’ve infiltrated.
The film becomes something else entirely, as satire morphs into a savage morality lesson that recalls the home invasion tales of Michael Haneke and Jordan Peele.
Aimless and jobless Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives in a crowded basement with his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) and their two children: son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), both in their early 20s.
When not dozing, Kim Ki-taek schemes of easy ways to make money or exploit opportunities, such as the “free” Wi-Fi his family cadges from surrounding homes and shops. His family are every bit as wily as he is. In these respects, “Parasite” bears resemblance to “Shoplifters,” the 2018 Palme d’Or winner by Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda.
That’s only for a moment, though. Opportunity comes knocking — and so does fate — when a friend helps Ki-woo get a lucrative gig tutoring high schooler Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the daughter of wealthy global IT company honcho Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun).
The lessons are inside the Park family’s luxurious mansion, which has a large picture window that looks onto a gorgeous garden. The Kim family has a window view, too, but it looks out into a garbage-strewn street.
Da-hye takes a shine to Ki-woo. So does her live-wire younger brother Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) and their mother Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong). Mr. Park is mostly distracted, just happy that his family is happy. But things started to get a little crowded.
Ki-woo coolly finagles ways to draw his father, mother and sister into the lives and home of the Parks, without reckoning on how this might affect the family and other people in their orbit.
That’s probably all you should know going into “Parasite,” which takes turns that are unforeseen even by people who know Bong’s work well. There’s talk in the film about the need or desire to have a plan, but no advance thought can prepare for what happens here.
Watch how Bong uses signs and symbols to increase tension and intrigue. The story makes creative use of Morse code, a sacred stone, and a reference to human scent that hints of disdain and judgment.
Bong wants to flood our senses as he pricks our consciences. He succeeds, and then some. “Parasite” seeps into your soul as one of the year’s best movies.
(This review originally ran on Oct. 17, 2019, in the Toronto Star.)