Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 7, 2020

Critic's Corner: ‘Parasite’ is a great film, well worth the minor effort of reading subtitles

Neon, the film distributor that released the South Korean film “Parasite” in the U.S., is billing the movie as a black comedy thriller. While “Parasite” has moments of genuine levity, I wouldn’t classify it as a thriller, even though it does contain several shocking moments. Rather, it’s more of a piercing drama about the impact of class conflict.

I probably lost a few readers before I even reached the bit about class conflict. That’s to be expected, since some people don’t like reading subtitles, and “Parasite” is a foreign language film with English subtitles.

I get it. After working all day, you don’t feel like going to the movies and reading for two-and a half hours. I don’t, either.

But I also believe anything that removes a barrier that keeps you from seeing and enjoying a movie is a good thing. So, after reading that “Parasite” had become the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, I put it on my to-see list. And I’m glad I did, because it might be one of the best films of recent years.

The story is very accessible. “Parasite” follows the members of a poor household (the Kims) who conspire to work for a wealthy family (the Parks) by posing as skilled workers. First through the door is the son, Ki-Woo, who poses as a tutor for the Parks’ daughter. He then convinces the Parks to hire his sister as an art therapist for their introverted son.

At first, the scheming is fun to watch, but “Parasite” gradually turns into something else as the Kims go to greater and greater extremes to get rid of the established staff and take their place.

Co-writer and director Bong Joon-ho skillfully plays with the audience’s sympathy. At first, I felt compassion for the Kims, who live a hard-scrabble existence in a squalid basement apartment in a derelict part of town.

But as the Kims worm their way into the Parks’ life, my sympathies began to shift. Perhaps that’s Joon-ho’s way of telling us there are no good or evil characters in “Parasite,” only victims of a way of life.

As “Parasite” sheds its skin and becomes a movie I was not expecting, it keeps viewers engaged with its handsome production design, thoughtful dialogue (that appears to have been translated into English with its lyricism intact) and accomplished acting.

Also captivating is Joon-ho’s film craft, which conveys his themes in simple but beautiful ways. I was spellbound as Ki-Woo first made his way up, up and up from the shadows of his community to the well-lit Parks compound, which sits in privileged indifference at the top of a hill.

And then I was surprised to realize we don’t see the sun in “Parasite” until Ki-Woo turns a corner and begins ascending the stairs to the Parks household.

Bong Joon-ho uses the visual language of film to express other ideas. For example, both households have a window that provides an almost identical perspective of the world outside the house – although what each family sees is very different. The Kims see a drunk urinating on their street; the Parks see their son camping in a tent, surrounded by protective bushes.

In another example, the Kims find themselves scurrying under the furniture of the Parks’ home like cockroaches to avoid being discovered. When I realized the imagery Joon-ho was creating, I felt sad.

Joon-ho packs a great deal of meaning and depth into “Parasite.” Some of the metaphors are easy to catch, like how he uses vertical distance to express the different rungs of the social ladder at which the two families exist. Others, like the way the architecture of the two homes mirror each other, remain a mystery to me.

Despite its artful approach, “Parasite” manages to be suspenseful and gripping and profound, and when it was over, I was shaken. If you had stopped me outside the theater and asked if I’d had trouble keeping up with the subtitles, I would have said, “There were subtitles?”

I’ll always be grateful I set aside an afternoon to see “Parasite” in a theater, where movies of its caliber should be seen. As the film gathers steam during Oscar season, I hope it will stay in theaters and allow others to experience it there as well.