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Bong Joon-Ho's Acclaimed Satire 'Parasite' Has Nothing Much to Say


Published November 6, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 21, 2019 at 12:30 p.m.

FAMILY PORTRAITS Bong’s latest offers the zigzaggy saga of a poor clan and a rich one mingling with meaninglessly violent results.
  • FAMILY PORTRAITS Bong’s latest offers the zigzaggy saga of a poor clan and a rich one mingling with meaninglessly violent results.

Somebody has to say it: The new film from gifted director Bong Joon-Ho (Okja) is neither his best nor the year's. It's fun and wonderful in many ways and cleverly conceived. It's also self-indulgent, riddled with plot holes and thematically vapid. Movies aren't required to make profound statements, of course. I point out that Parasite doesn't only because virtually every other reviewer has insisted it does.

Critics have praised its "savage commentary on economic inequality and the violence inflicted by capitalism" (Dana Stevens, Slate). I suppose that's because the story concerns a family that's wealthy, a family that's poor and the zaniness that ensues once the twain meets. But that's like hailing Geostorm for its "savage commentary on humanity's failure to halt climate change." Referencing a social ill isn't the same as saying something new, useful or insightful about it. Parasite doesn't say anything about inequality that Bong's Snowpiercer (2013) didn't say already and with more imaginative panache.

How poor are the Kims? Father, mother, son and daughter live in a cramped semi-basement Seoul apartment and make ends almost meet by folding boxes for a nearby pizzeria. When the son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), hears about an opportunity to tutor a well-to-do high school student, his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), whips up a fake diploma to get him in the door. In short order, the entire Kim clan has adopted false identities to scam its way into lucrative gigs with the family.

How wealthy are the Parks? Father, mother, son and daughter live on top of the world on the other side of town in an ultramodern compound surrounded by concrete walls. Each is a one-dimensional doodle. The daughter instantly falls in love with Ki-woo, who's changed his name to Kevin. The family's temperamental young son instantly and inexplicably submits to the will of Ki-jung, who's changed her name to Jessica and cooked up credentials to work as an art therapist.

So far, so amusing, in a con-job comedy kind of way. The director describes the first half of the film as a "nerdy family version of Mission: Impossible." Frothy, fast-paced fun. Nothing wrong with that.

But the second half. That's where things go off the rails. Bong sets a new world record for the number of tonal and genre shifts in a single cinematic work. Which is great in that he keeps you guessing, but — it evidently needs pointing out — doesn't in itself make the movie meaningful or artistically significant, just unpredictable. And much of it is unpredictable because what happens makes little or no sense.

After the great flood, ask yourself, Where'd everybody get the beautiful dry party clothes? After the script spends time setting up a Morse code situation, ask yourself, Given what comes of it, was that time sensibly spent? After what happens with an incriminating cellphone photo, ask yourself, Whatever happened to that cell? After the blood-drenched climactic sequence, ask yourself, WTF?

You get the idea. To make matters less meaningful, the film offers zero thoughtful comment on capitalism or inequality. It simply gives us poor characters gaming rich characters and assumes we'll side with the poor. That's not "savage commentary." That's condescension. This is by far the filmmaker's most commercially successful work to date. Getting fat off a fractured fairy tale about class, Bong acts like a parasite here if anyone does. He's better than that. So are you.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Parasite"

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