You may well have woken up to a pleasant surprise this morning. Before last night, the Academy Awards had never had a Best Foreign Language winner from South Korea, nor had they had a Best Picture winner not in the English language. That all changed with Parasite’s triumphant haul of four (rewards also went out for its screenplay and to its mega-talented director Bong Joon-Ho). And frankly, there could not have been a better film to smash through these barriers, with Parasite proving an expertly-crafted, devilishly funny thriller that manages to tap into much of what seems wrong with today’s society.
The film focuses on the Kim family, an impoverished unit falling on increasingly hard times. The eldest son begins work for the Parks, a family several rungs up the class ladder who inhabit a lavish piece of modern architecture (a character in its own right). From there, the Kims begin to integrate into the home, taking on key roles within the Parks' lives. All seems to be going according to plan until events spiral out of control.
Parasite is first and foremost a rollicking ride, a masterful thriller that plays out the con movie tropes expertly. Bong has always exhibited a remarkable directorial gift, producing some of the very best South Korean films of recent years (once you’ve watched Parasite do seek out Okja, Snowpiercer and The Host). On a technical level, Parasite is a remarkable achievement, combining exemplary cinematography, editing and music, all around one of the best-designed sets in recent history. Parasite is a magnificent rollercoaster, and really should be seen on the big screen.
The ensemble here is really quite special. Each cast member inhabits their part so that it feels lived in, crafting deeply human figures. As the narrative twists and turns, their performances keep the film grounded, so that even the most outlandish developments feel completely understandable. What impresses are the moments where morally compromised characters manage to gain our sympathies. South Korean legend Song Kang-ho gains many of the film’s funnier moments but pivots as proceedings darken. Park So-dam feels like an instantly iconic presence, whilst Choi Woo-sik brings a tension to his part that builds throughout. Jang Hye-jin completes the family unit with flashes of ferocity that are unnerving. But there isn’t a weak link in a cast that feels like it will add to the re-watchable quality of Parasite.
And this is why Parasite stands out. Why it feels such a satisfying history-maker. For, as much fun as the ride is, as impressive as the second-half rug pulls are, Parasite has a quality that feels worthy of revisiting. There is a potent political quality to the film, as there always is with much of Bong Joon-Ho’s work. While this work is indebted to South Korean culture, it feels like one of the most effective capitalist parallels of recent years. You’ll leave elated for cinema but heartbroken for the political truths being tapped into here. Parasite will make viewers mad as hell and more certain than ever that we have to fix the mess we are in. Truly, it is a masterpiece.