There are less than three months left in the decade, but the 2010s are refusing to quietly fade to black. It has been an outstanding year for movies, and I pity anyone tasked with organizing a year-end list come December. Do you lead with Quentin Tarantino's Manson murder retelling Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, or Ari Aster's acid-horror Midsommer? How about the blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, the glittering Hustlers, or the understated force of The Farewell and The Souvenir? And what of the movies that haven't been released yet: Martin Scorsese's Pacino-De Niro reunion The Irishman; the bonkers must-see The Lighthouse; the lovely Portrait of a Lady on Fire?
It might seem impudent, then, to narrow such a list down to one, much less to do so in early October. But I am certain when I say, you will see nothing this year quite as remarkable, wickedly hilarious, technically-accomplished, and devastating as Parasite.
Out Friday, Parasite has been building hype since May, when it became the first movie to win the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or by unanimous vote since Blue Is the Warmest Colour in 2013. And while Parasite marks South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's third movie in a row to address themes of class, poverty, and capitalism, unlike Okja (2017) and Snowpiercer (2013) before it, Parasite is being billed as a "family tragicomedy" rather than a genre film, and does not star English-speaking Hollywood actors.
Instead, Parasite is headed by Bong's longtime collaborator, the wonderful Song Kang-ho, who plays Kim Ki-taek, a father who occupies a dingy semi-basement apartment with his wife, son, and daughter, and makes a meager living folding pizza boxes. When Ki-taek's son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), is given the opportunity (albeit, with a bit of forgery) to become the English tutor for the daughter of the nouveau riche Park family, the Kims begin to scheme about how to con the rest of their family into the Parks' service too. As the Kims succeed and begin to exploit their newfound source of income, the "parasite" of the title might seem to be obvious — but Bong's movie is far too richly conceived to simply end the allegory there.
While Bong has savagely dismissed the Oscars as a "very local" honor, Parasite is remarkable in part because it is already generating American awards buzz — despite the Academy's resistance to foreign-language films. Shockingly, no movie from South Korea has ever been nominated in any category. But Parasite is not only the presumed winner of the Oscars' newly-rebranded "international feature" statuette, but rumored to be a competitor in other categories as well, including screenplay, director, and even, possibly, best picture. "The question now is how much further it can go," writes Vanity Fair's Katey Rich, adding: "It's hard to imagine that Academy voters won't feel the same pull that festival audiences have."
It's true: in terms of sheer enjoyment alone, Parasite delivers. The movie is as darkly funny as its director, and even with a runtime just on the far side of two hours, it never loses its momentum. One particular sequence — when Kim Ki-taek tries to convince Mrs. Park that her housekeeper has active tuberculosis in a ploy that involves selfies and hot sauce — is so brilliantly edited and preposterously operatic that my sides actually ached afterwards from laughing. But while Parasite is often satirical, it isn't, exactly, satire: The Parks are not played as comical Mr. Moneybags types, twirling their mustaches; rather, their sin is the quieter sort, of allowing their wealth to become their blinders. Nor are the Kims played for laughs as opportunistic money-grubbers, but as cogs in an eat-or-be-eaten society. Still, Bong's humor serves a duel purpose: Earning your laughs, sure, but also as a kind of honey-coating for a much bitterer pill.
As a master of the use of physical space on camera, Bong literally stratifies his movie into planes to show the mobility of the characters (to quote Ki-woo: "so metaphorical!"). Actors are always ascending — up the two flights of stairs it takes to reach the master level of the Park's home — or descending, like during a breathtaking scene when the Kims retreat back to their subterranean dwelling during a rainstorm. It is the Parks' home, though, that functions as the kind of centerpiece of the film; a mansion built by a legendary architect, its owners seem to literally levitate up from below on its modern staircases. Bong, who storyboards each one of his scenes like a manga, has an obsessive eye for details, and insured the house would appear, above all, as unattainable. "We calculated that on an average income, it would take 547 years to afford that house," he told The Sydney Morning Herald.
And that's the knife's twist of Parasite. For while you're laughing at the antics of the Kims, it creeps up on you — you notice, all at once and far too late, that there is a much more dangerous picture stewing in the guts of this comedy. You hear something relatable, maybe, in Mr. Park's humiliating flex of, "you're getting paid extra, think of this as part of your job," when he's speaking to Kim Ki-taek. You inadvertently flinch at a groveling housekeeper's appeal to her "fellow workers" and "fellow members of the needy." You even find yourself daydreaming, maybe, through the window of the film, of if you could fit into the Parks' world, too.
Ironically, Parasite has been a crowd favorite at such plush events as Telluride, "the Tiffany of the world's film festivals," where all-access passes start at a prohibitive $780. And that is the real wonder of this movie; that it can be given standing ovations by the very people, and the very system, it condemns. Just like the organisms for which the film is named, Parasite is all fun and games until you realize it's sucked you dry.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.