Foreign films are rarely recognized in Hollywood. The Academy Awards have long held a tradition of giving foreign films an international feature prize rather than best picture. However, two weeks ago, this all changed when the Academy Awards broke tradition. In a surprising move, the Oscars awarded their top prize to the South Korean film “Parasite”. Not only did it become the first foreign-language film ever to win best picture, but it broke barriers for Korean Cinema. It opened up possibilities for foreign films to gain international recognition. How did a small art house film from South Korea become a worldwide sensation?
The answer to this question is simple: “Parasite” is a modern masterpiece and deserves the recognition that it has received. Intense, wickedly funny and utterly unpredictable, it is a sublime piece of filmmaking that demands to be seen. With his seventh feature, writer/director Bong Joon-ho has crafted a mesmerizing film about class discrimination in Korea. Packed with gorgeous production values, smart storytelling and spectacular performances from a stellar cast, it is one of those foreign films that works on every level. Although “Parasite” is undeniably unforgettable, its dark themes may not appeal to mainstream audiences. That being said, it offers original entertainment that is sure to satisfy fans of Korean Cinema.
Set in South Korea, “Parasite” tells the story of a poverty-stricken family that dreams of becoming rich. The Kims are a poor family that live in a small semi-basement apartment with low-paying jobs. However, their lives forever change when their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is hired as a tutor by the rich Park family. Using their skills as cunning con-artists, the Kims assume fake identities and become servants for the Park family. As the Kims begin to enjoy their newfound lives, they soon become embroiled in class conflict that tears their family apart.
Writer/director Bong Joon-ho is no stranger to themes of class conflict. Ever since he burst onto the mainstream with “Snowpiercer” in 2013, Bong Joon-ho has proven to be a fantastic South Korean filmmaker. His films are often characterized by social themes, black humor and genre-mixing. With “Parasite”, however, Bong Joon-ho has crafted his first scathing satire. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to satirize the class warfare in South Korea, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Bong Joon-ho draws viewers into the lives of a poor Korean family. From intimate close-ups to breathtaking establishing shots, the cinematography keeps viewers invested in the movie. Working alongside cinematographer Hong Gyeong-Pyo, Bong Joon-ho creates a visually sumptuous world that is occupied by con-artists. Bong Joon-ho excels at visually immersing viewers in the world of an impoverished family, and his latest feature is worth watching on the big-screen for this reason alone.
If themes of class conflict do not attract you to the theater, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Parasite”. The film is extremely well-made, and features the most impressive production values that you’ll ever see in a foreign film. From a technical standpoint, it is arguably the finest film that Bong Joon-ho has made to date. The sets, locations and music are all perfectly chosen, combining to create an immersive movie-going experience. Bong Joon-ho proves to be an expert at designing the production for his films. For instance, the Park family’s house plays a crucial role in the movie. Whether it is the terrifying basement bunker or the elaborate staircases, the meticulously crafted sets immerse viewers into the film’s setting. Moreover, the musical score is also worth praising. Jung Jae-il’s score is highly effective. It gives the film a tense and suspenseful atmosphere reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock. Through astonishing production values, Bong Joon-ho keeps viewers immersed in the lives of an impoverished family.
Another admirable aspect of “Parasite” that contributes to its success is the screenplay. Bong Joon-ho’s screenplay is outstanding and arguably the main highlight of the movie. Filled with compelling characters, witty dialogue and timely themes, the script elevates the movie to another level. Bong Joon-ho’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to subvert the expectations of viewers by genre-mixing. In Hollywood, most movies follow a formulaic genre that audiences are familiar with. This often leaves room for no surprises and detracts from the movie-going experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Parasite”. Blending together different genres -such as comedy, thriller and horror- Bong Joon-ho crafts a film that is consistently surprising viewers. Genre-mixing is a risky technique to employ in a foreign film, but it works tremendously in this movie. Using an engaging screenplay, Bong Joon-ho keeps viewers engrossed in the lives of a clever con-artist family.
It is hard to not marvel at the magnificent performances from the cast. In the year’s most award-worthy Asian ensemble, every star gets the chance to shine and leave a lasting impression.
Choi Woo-shik delivers a star-making performance as Ki-woo. In his first ever leading role, Woo-shik proves to be a movie-star with a knack for playing clever con-artists. It is not easy to get into the mindset of a mischievous teenager that deceives his rich employers. It’s a tricky role that requires the actor to tread a fine line between being sympathetic and despicable. However, Woo-shik pulls it off effortlessly. With captivating expressions, he conveys the fear, desperation and confidence of a poor boy that bluffs his rich employers. While Woo-shik isn’t well-known outside of Korea, this powerful performance will surely gain him the recognition that he deserves.
The supporting cast is excellent and also worthy of recognition. Song Kang-Ho is sensational and imbues shades of humanity into the poor father Ki-taek. Park So-dam is phenomenal and brings an air of mystery to the movie as Ki-jeong. And finally, it is hard to not mention Cho Yeo-jeong. As the gullible matriarch of the Park family, she brings hilarious comical relief and persona to the movie.
Although “Parasite” is undeniably an unforgettable satire, ultimately it is not a movie that is meant for everyone. If there’s a minor drawback to the film, it may not appeal to mainstream audiences. It offers a dark, disturbing and at times horrific depiction of class warfare in South Korea. Viewers that are sensitive towards bloody violence may not enjoy the movie. Moreover, the film’s controversial themes may not sit well with some viewers. It makes bold statements on capitalism, greed and class conflict that may upset viewers. Due to its heavy themes, “Parasite” is one of those movies that won’t appeal towards commercial audiences.
Nevertheless, fans of Bong Joon-ho’s previous films will definitely enjoy “Parasite” and so will movie-goers seeking original entertainment. An awe-inspiring piece of filmmaking, it proves that Korean Cinema has a lot to offer the world. At a time when foreign films are rarely recognized in Hollywood, it’s a momentous reminder that stories from South Korea deserve to be seen and heard.