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One review of Bong Joon-hu’s latest film, Parasite, describes it as a magic trick. Of all the critical acclaim that has been lavished on the South Korean maestro, this best describes his genius. Indeed, apart from Yorgos Lanthimos, there is not a single filmmaker today that indulges in the subversion of expectations the way he does.

On the surface, Parasite seems like a comedy. By the end of the first act, it feels like a morality tale, and by the second act, it begins to give the impression of a David Fincher thriller. But in the end, what we find is a social commentary, a clever portrayal of the relationship between the upper and the lower class and the natural violent death capitalism that is taken to the extremes is going to die. If we are only used to plot twists, Joon-hu introduces the thematic twist through a plot that unravels so spontaneously we barely see it coming.

The film first introduces us to a family of four that live in a semi-basement apartment. They are barely getting by, even having to resort to stealing Wi-Fi from a neighbouring café, which is saying something in today’s South Korea. The oldest child of the family gets lucky though. A friend of his is travelling overseas, so he wants him to take over his tutoring job for the daughter of a ridiculously rich family.

He fakes a college degree and gets himself the job. He quickly notices that the matriarch of the family, who hires all the help, is gullible. When she mentions that their youngest son is inclined to the arts, he recommends an art tutor that he promises comes highly recommended. This art tutor also happens to be his sister, who has no higher education or any clue about the arts but is a much more accomplished con artist than he is. Before the third act, the entire family of four manages to have themselves hired using different aliases at the rich family’s house.

Any other movie would have stopped there. But Parasite becomes a whole new movie in its second half. It is a testament to Joon-ho and his co-writer Han Jin-won’s ability in carefully crafting a plot that this transition does not come off as disorganised but as a welcome detour. By the end of the film, we find ourselves at a destination so far removed from our anticipations, we cannot help but appreciate the genius of it all.

Parasite stars one of Joon-ho’s most frequent collaborators Song Kang-ho. He plays the patriarch of the family in a performance that has become characteristic of his appearances in movies. He perfectly embodies naivety, ignorance and mildness. In parasite, he combines these traits with a certain destructive quality to show the personal tragedies that succeed in driving a person to the extremes. As always he manages to fit perfectly well into Joon-ho’s vision of a man that is just barely making it in a world of inconsistencies, injustices and materialism. Their collaboration, if Joon-ho’s genius continues unabated, and I am sure it will, may just be the greatest since the productive partnership between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.

Joon-ho is at least half of the reason that the South Korean movie industry has become so highly regarded. He has managed to make one fantastic movie after the other. His greatest movie remains Memories of Murder, an endlessly watchable film noir that managed to exceed in complexity the works of the modern master of the genre, David Fincher. The film is at least as good as Se7en and at least twice as profound as Zodiac.

Another one of his movies is The Host, one of the most entertaining and suspenseful films ever made. It shows Joon-ho’s ability to take on a textbook monster movie and turn it into a colourful, humorous and touching family drama. Snowpiercer and Okja are imbued with the same characteristics. They are both funny with clever plots, deeply interesting and sad all at the same time. They mark a time of mild artistic accomplishment for Joon-ho but they are still boundlessly entertaining.

Parasite is a return to form for Joon-ho. It is the best movie he has made since Memories of Murder. There is never a scene or a shot that does not finally figure into the theme and plot of the movie. It is not so much great as it is exuberantly clever. It is not so much funny as it is sarcastic. Most of all, it is not so much descriptive of wealth inequality as it is a nightmarish and sardonic commentary on the excesses of capitalism. It is a magic trick indeed.

PUBLISHED ON Oct 05,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1014]


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