Spoiler alert: The best film of 2019 doesn’t star Leonardo DiCaprio and isn’t directed by Martin Scorsese.
Average American audiences probably haven’t heard of filmmaker Bong Joon Ho or his frequent collaborator Kang-ho Song, but their latest feature together is the best South Korean film of all time and a top five movie of the last decade by any measure.
“Parasite,” a haunting and arresting drama with elements of comedy and paranoia, took home the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with a dynamic, unflinching look at families at the top and bottom of South Korea’s social strata.
The less audiences know about the film before seeing “Parasite,” the better the cinematic experience will be.
Twists and turns masterfully crafted into the story will be offset by moments of extremely poignant subtlety as Bong envelopes audiences in a world that seems infinitely close and yet constantly out of reach through perfect shot selection and camera movement that puts the viewers’ eyes on exactly what they need to see at the exact moment they need to see it.
In the simplest terms, “Parasite” is about two families, the affluent Park family living in a walled manor on a hill and the impoverished Kim family leeching off open Wi-Fi and free extermination in their semi-basement flat.
When the Kim’s son is hired to serve as an English tutor for the Park’s teenage daughter, it sets in motion a series of events that will irrevocably change both families for life.
“Parasite” relies on eight actors to deliver memorable, pitch-perfect performances in order to pull off Bong’s layered screenplay and there isn’t a false step among the entire cast.
Each member of the family – father, mother, son and daughter – is in sharp contrast from their mirror in the other family, as if they were playing the opposite side of the same coin, but not in a duplicate style as in Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us.”
The cast of “Parasite” excels in the variety of tones Bong moves through and the expressions lingering on the face of Kang-ho Song often allow viewers to peer inside the soul of the film.
“Parasite” translates perfectly for American audiences as Joon Ho maintains a universality to the film through thematic elements of economic class conflict, greed and deception. Its biggest hindrance to mainstream success is a relative unwillingness for subtitled films, though Bong has crafted a theatrical experience that far transcends any language barrier.
“Parasite” uses the camera frame as a reflection of the contrasting world views of the poor Kim family and rich Park family. This is most evident in the film’s geography, where staircases are frequently used to depict the upward mobility of the Parks and the downward descent of the Kims.
Production design in “Parasite” is stunningly effective as Bong’s team constructs a multi-layered mansion from scratch on an outdoor studio lot that seems all too perfect not to be an actual home.
The Parks’ living room is adorned by a massive wall-sized window into the enclosed front yard, framed to match the film’s 2:39:1 aspect ratio and enhance viewers’ ability to visually peer inside the mindset of the well-off family.
Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong gives “Parasite” an expansive visual style that provides unique geographic perspective at all times, highlighting the space the Park family enjoys in beautiful contrast to the cramped tightness of the Kim family’s world. No matter how close the camera gets to actors, Bong maintains a wide depth of field to constantly change and accentuate the audiences’ peripheral vision.
Perspective is of key importance to “Parasite” as viewers are left questioning events in the film from every angle, not knowing what’s coming next or where it’s coming from. It’s an unparalleled combination of tension and release that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats.
“Parasite” will become the first South Korean film to be nominated for an Academy Award, an almost certain lock to win the Oscar for Best International Film. There’s potential for much more acclaim for the Palme d’Or winner from this year’s Cannes Film Festival as “Parasite” deserves to contend for Best Picture, direction, cinematography, production design and supporting actor for Song Kang-ho.
A contender for the best film of the decade, “Parasite” is a thrilling, absolute masterpiece from one of the world’s greatest auteur directors. Visually stunning and arresting from start to finish, there won’t be a better cinematic experience in theaters all year.