By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) — The South Korean feature “Parasite” (Neon) is a bit of a roller-coaster ride. The film begins as a sly comedy, then takes a surprising turn that leads on to a bloody, operatic climax laden with grim social commentary about class conflict.
As a result, though clever and insightful, director and co-writer Bong Joon-ho’s dark satire is too disturbing for casual moviegoers. Grown viewers willing to tackle its tougher elements, including some explicit sensuality within marriage, on the other hand, will encounter an accomplished piece of cinema.
This is a tale of two families: the impoverished Kims and the wealthy Parks. As the Kims eke out a precarious existence in the slums of an unnamed city, the Parks flourish in one of its refined quarters.
Their paths cross when Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the son of the struggling clan, uses false pretenses to secure a position tutoring Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so), the teen daughter of the prosperous one, in English. In short order, and by even more underhanded means, the rest of the Kims follow suit.
Dad Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) becomes the Parks’ chauffer, mom Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) displaces their longtime housekeeper, Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), while Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), is hired as an art therapist for Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), Da-hye’s wild little brother. It’s an integral part of their scheme, of course, that they all pretend to be strangers to one another.
The success of the Kim’s massive con job is facilitated by the naivete of Da-hye and Da-song’s pampered mother, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong). It’s also abetted by the fact that Yeon-gyo’s husband, Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), is too distracted by his business affairs to pay much attention to what’s going on at home.
The twist comes when it turns out that Gook Moon-gwang has long harbored a secret that now has the potential to upend the Kims’ elaborate ruse.
Bong’s script, penned with Han Jin-won, has much to say about the resentments of the poor, the indifference of the rich and the ability of the latter to pit the less fortunate against one another as they fight for survival. All of this is conveyed subtly and by implication, however, so that, although some may consider the movie’s pitch overwrought at moments, it never feels preachy.
Whether the deliberately jarring mayhem, set in the most unlikely of contexts, toward which the plot works its increasingly feverish way is justified or excessive is another question. Either way, taken as a whole, “Parasite” makes its mark and is not easily forgotten.
In Korean. Subtitles.
The film contains much gory violence, semi-graphic marital lovemaking, a couple of profanities, a few milder oaths and considerable rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.