'Parasite' film still

Mooching off the neighbors' wifi. Folding pizza boxes for an extra buck. Keeping the window open when the street exterminator comes by to get some free home fumigation. Yes, the Kim family is just that poor.

Crammed into a tiny, semi-basement apartment, the Kims — father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, son Ki-woo and daughter Ki-jeong — are just one of the many families barely getting by in their poverty-stricken Seoul neighborhood. They're not without their skills or education or even some work experience, but any apparent step forward is inevitably succeeded by a massive leap back into jobless squalor. No matter how demeaning, they'll take any opportunity to do some honest work.

Or, as it turns out, maybe not-so-honest. When Ki-woo lands a gig tutoring the oldest daughter of the high-class Park family, he becomes quickly intoxicated by the polished excess on display, leading him and his family to start scheming. The remaining Kims begin to assume false identities and attempt to pass themselves off as qualified in-home workers, replacing the Parks' employees and infiltrating their residence one by one.

But one night, one of the Parks' recently ousted workers returns, threatening the Kims' job security and revealing unexpected secrets about life among South Korea's 1 percent -- secrets that might soon prove deadly.

There's little more that can be said about "Parasite" without betraying what makes it one of 2019's most exciting, entertaining and memorable films. Part of me fears I've already said too much, but beyond its initial, borderline absurdist premise, this movie slaloms between different genres and tones so deftly and continuously that it will keep you guessing — and often gasping — until it fades to black.

Director and co-writer Bong Joon-ho, whom Western audiences might recognize for the English-language films "Snowpiercer" and "Okja," turns in assured, steady-handed work that will hopefully earn him the international mainstream attention he deserves. A master at establishing environment, character and mood through dazzling visuals, immaculate soundscapes and naturalistic, rarely expositional dialogue, Bong has made about as proper an example of pure cinema as you'll see all year. At one point he and co-writer Han Jin-won even have the guts to make a crucial appeal to the audience's olfactory sense -- and somehow it works.

In fact, there are character turns and story stretches aplenty in "Parasite" that probably wouldn't have landed if handled by a less confident filmmaker. But Bong clearly believes in and cares for his characters to the point that every wrench thrown into the seemingly smooth plot machinations makes sense, even when motivations vary greatly from person to person. His parable of class anxiety and economic disparity is rounded out by naturalistic, wholly relatable performances from everyone on-screen, especially Song Kang-ho as the tragically afflicted and conflicted Ki-taek.

Though just barely too long for most audiences to consider taut or breezy, the film makes the absolute most out of its 132 minutes. There's no fat to trim, no gut-busting gag or shocking display of menace that takes away from the layered and twisted experience. One could viably argue that it takes a little too long to end, as was my only count against the movie at first. But upon reflection, the coda is essential in impressing upon viewers the insidious dichotomy of false hope and inescapable melancholy that families like the Kims experience every day.

"Parasite" will sit you down for one movie and usher you out from a completely different one. Still, it sticks every tricky landing, making for an unforgettable and wholly re-watchable big-screen roller coaster ride. It's playing now in several locations across northern Virginia — don't let one of this year's most worthy movie experiences pass you by.


Rating: 5/5


John Battiston, who screened "Parasite" at the 2019 Middleburg Film Festival, is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at jbattiston@loudountimes.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.

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