The elements of pitch-black comedy, cold-war-style class warfare, family drama-dy, and some tautly grim moments collide, in the latest from innovative Korean director Bong Joon-ho, “Parasite.” The original storyline is credible and engaging, as the audiences’ sympathies and loyalties wax, waver, and wane.
“There’s no way this could’ve been a Hollywood movie,” remarked an audience member, as the last credits rolled and the Landmark theater lights brightened.
“No,” her companion eagerly offered, “Studios would want more control and layer in conventional American tropes.”
Only in L.A. can you overhear razor-sharp — and accurate — appraisal so quickly after viewing a film. The theater-chair reviewers skewed more than a couple of decades younger than the majority of typical Landmark theater attendees. Landmark audiences are often much older, predominantly (but not quite entirely) white, and very clearly both movie savvy and jaded. It’s not unusual to spot a recognizable face amidst a sea of people.
While waiting in the lobby for the recent 9:45 p.m. show, the previous shows’ audiences poured out, along with a notable number of scooters, walkers, and “needs assistance” attendees. But despite the late hour, the theater was at capacity — earlier in the afternoon, the Landmark hosted director Bong and stars Song Kang Ho and Park So Dam for a Q&A. That show and future screenings featuring the aforementioned “Parasite” stars in a Q&A, were, as typical at the West Los Angeles-located theater (noted for its showing of indies and more avant-garde film fare) long sold-out in advance.
All of this is really to comment that despite the audience’s older, not-very-diverse make-up, the sub-titled “Parasite” drew huge crowds. And, whether or not the Landmark’s audience was the movie’s target audience becomes irrelevant, because “Paradise” transcends the “usual” US film fare.
The story begins innocently enough. The movie introduces the Kims, a family of four — father Ki-taek (Song), mother Moon-gwang (Jang Hye-Jin), and their two young-adult children, daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) — none of whom appear to have a full-time steady job. The Kims are mired in poverty, as they steal wi-fi, condemned to contend with intoxicated patrons from the bar next door who are seemingly compelled to urinate at the family’s wide front-facing window.
Ki-woo unexpectedly inherits a tutoring gig from his childhood buddy Min (Park Seo-joon), while that friend leaves to go abroad. It’s not long before Ki-woo is well into the graces of the extremely wealthy Park family (the parents, played by Jo Yeo-jeong and Korean superstar Lee Sun-Kyun) of the girl he’s tutoring, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). Soon, Ki-woon sees an opportunity for the rest of his family to join the ranks of household staff at the spacious Park house.
First, Ki-jung is recruited as an art therapist for the precocious young Park son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun). Not long after the brother and sister secure their positions, the Park’s driver and housekeeper are quickly dispatched, ideal jobs for the senior Kims.
There is the inevitable depiction of classist and assumptive behaviors — on both ends of the social spectrum, as represented by the Kims and Parks. The film and families, literally, and figuratively, descend into unexpected horrors.
There’s a lot of keenly observed, well-written scenes, and the movie’s trajectory to the climax seems neither rushed nor languid, but just right. And by striking all the right chords with audiences, initially grabbing them with humor and irony, while building to the quickly-shifting tone climax.
It’s an ultimately gripping and dark film, without cliches, and wholly original. Yes, it’s a foreign film, written and starring Koreans, in Korean, and with subtitles. But it won’t matter. Not only will you be engaged throughout “Parasite,” you won’t be able to stop thinking about it afterward.