Is there anyone else quite like Bong Joon-ho? A graduate of the kinetic Korean New Wave of the mid-2000s, his films look, sound and move unlike anything else, often combining broad slapstick with gruesome violence and surprising bouts of melancholy. His formal command is astonishing, as is his ability to shift between genres; early in his career, he went from making the beautifully wrought serial killer epic Memories of Murder to the gonzo creature feature The Host, whose bravura opening set-piece saw a giant sea creature rampage through the streets of Seoul in broad daylight. It’s no wonder that Tarantino called him the next Steven Spielberg. And speaking of Tarantino, nothing could have stolen his spotlight more effectively than Parasite: a brilliant, borderline-uncategorisable class thriller that – whisper it – might be Joon-ho’s best work yet.
It’s the kind of thing that’s best experienced blind, so much fun are its twists and turns, though there’s nothing wrong with knowing the basic premise: a family of poor grifters – bumbling Dad Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), his wife Chung-sook (Hyae Jin Chang), son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park) – manage to infiltrate a rich family by posing as up-market servants and tutors. Like in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, they’re affected by class envy – they live in a hovel where drunks piss on the street outside, while the family they target enjoy a worry-free existence in their spotless modern mansion, adorned with a huge glass window in the living room.
While Joon-ho certainly shares the same savant-like command over the medium as Spielberg, he really builds off the legacy of Hitchcock. The scenes which earned the most raucous appreciation at the press screening, including two applause breaks, were ones that take basic, suspenseful conceits – characters deceiving one other, hiding behind walls and furniture, setting up objects and conceits (e.g. WiFi coverage) that pay off further down the line – and crank them up to 11. The director plays the audience like a fiddle, able to transition from uproariously funny slapstick to something terrifying, like the sight of a dark, empty doorway, with a thrilling sense of ease.
And for most of its runtime, Parasite is wired tight as a drum, an exhilarating thriller with a killer class allegory at its centre. It eventually loosens towards the end, though it’s certainly understandable why – Joon-ho is working through the potent, messy emotions of a society on the brink, operating within the same basic universe as last year’s Shoplifters and Burning while taking mad risks those filmmakers could only dream of. It’s a great film, and the crown jewel of this year’s Cannes film festival.
Parasite (Gisaengchung) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for Parasite (Gisaengchung) in French here:
Watch two clips from Parasite (Gisaengchung) here: