Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Bong Joon Ho's tale of two families explores the wealth gap in South Korean society with wit, insight and a pitch black sense of humour." | Photo: © 2019 CJ ENM Corporation, Barunson E&A

Sitting round the coffee table, all of the members of the Kim family agree that Mrs Park (Jo Yeo-jeong) is nice. But then, they observe, she's rich, so she can be nice. It's different for them.

Bong Joon Ho's tale of two families explores the wealth gap in South Korean society with wit, insight and a pitch black sense of humour. Beginning as a playful farce, it descends into very dark places but always makes room for forgiveness, suggesting that what is wrong is something systemic, so large and so entrenched as to be beyond the comprehension of most of the individuals who perpetuate it.

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Mrs Park, her husband (Lee Sun-kyun), her teenage daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so) and her precocious, hyperactive son Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun) live in a sprawling modern home which they purchased following the death of its previous owner, the architect who designed it. This they have lovingly filled with designer goods whose quality they are sure of because they come from America. The Kims, by contrast, live in a crumbling basement apartment whose windows are regularly urinated against by drunks, where they have to climb up close to the ceiling to get any phone signal. All unemployed, they make money by doing whatever odd jobs they can get until, one day, a friend of teenager Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) tells him that there's an opening for an English tutor in the Park household. All he has to do is pretend to be a college student and prep Da-hye for an exam - something that should be easy enough given that he's taken it three times.

Ki-woo may not be book smart but he's clever enough, and before long all four members of the Kim family, presenting themselves as casual acquaintances, have secured jobs in the Park household. The naive Parks buy their stories wholesale and it's easy to think of them as victims of these savvy scammers, but are they really losing anything? The services the Kims provide seem to satisfy them well enough (even the extra-curricular services that Da-hye expects of Ki-woo) and Bong gently prompts viewers to consider the situation a little more deeply. Who is really exploiting who? Why, despite their cleverness and hard work, do the Kims have to act as servants? In case that question seems purely philosophical, he introduces a sequence which reminds us just how brutal life in poverty can be.

With a twist part-way through that ups the ante and reveals that the Kims themselves have certain privileges they're hesitant to compromise, Parasite delivers consistently strong character-based comedy and drama with an unusually nuanced perspective on class. Though they come across as whole, complex people with loving relationships, the Parks display a curious kind of innocence and their own species of cultural deference - even their unexamined racism is imported - which does nothing to mitigate their sense of entitlement or the cruelty of their actions. Though the Kims can also be cruel, their ingenuity keeps us rooting for them, as does Mr Kim's clear longing for justice for all involved.

Bong has never been afraid to show violence directly and when push comes to shove here he doesn't hold back, yet it's the combination of this boldness with the film's underlying intelligence that gives it its power. There is none of the heavy-handedness of Okja or the compromises for the sake of making a point that brought down Snowpiercer. This is a mature, beautifully crafted piece of work and much cleverer than it initially appears. The ensemble cast handle their roles perfectly, never getting in one another's way, and Bong's disarming use of humour leaves the viewer unprepared when things get serious. Parasite is simmering with anger yet rarely lets us see it. There is also a kind of despair, but it's a lament played in a major key.

Reviewed on: 22 Dec 2019
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All unemployed, Ki-taek's family takes peculiar interest in the Parks for their livelihood until they get entangled in an unexpected incident.
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Director: Bong Joon Ho

Writer: Bong Joon Ho, Jin-won Han

Starring: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Cho, Woo-sik Choi, So-dam Park, Lee Jeong-eun, Jang Hye-jin, Park Myeong-hoon, Ji-so Jung, Hyun-jun Jung, Keun-rok Park, Yi-Seo Jung, Jae-myeong Jo, Ik-han Jung, Kyu-baek Kim

Year: 2019

Runtime: 132 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea

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