Parasite is a South Korean dark comedy thriller. Courtesy of Tiff | IMAGE HAS BEEN CROPPED

Last week at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho premiered his newest film, Parasite, to a Canadian audience. Not a second is wasted in the film’s more-than-two-hour hour runtime as Parasite slowly builds from a sardonic black comedy to its electrifying conclusion, making its audience toggle between bursts of laughter and squirms of discomfort along the way.

Parasite focuses on the interweaving lives of two South Korean families in vastly different economic situations: the Kims, who live below the poverty line in a cramped, sub-basement apartment; and the absurdly wealthy Park family, who live in a sleek mansion far away from the Kims’ poverty-stricken neighborhood.

When Ki-Woo, a member of the Kim family played by Choi Woo-shik, ends up securing a job as a private English tutor for the Parks’ daughter, played by Jung Ji-so, Parasite’s tale of deception begins to slowly unravel itself. What begins as a Robin Hood-esque tale of mischief devolves into something far more sinister, intricate, and highly entertaining.

In one of the film’s earliest gags, the Kims’ upstairs neighbor puts a password on their router due to the Kims’ freeloading, forcing them to sneak onto a nearby café’s connection in order to get on WhatsApp and stay up-to-date with the world and job openings.

This leads into a small, comedic exchange among the family, showcasing how often this modern utility is taken for granted and just how quickly we are to notice its absence. Right out the gate, this tale of internet theft ends up setting the tone for the rest of the film, firmly cementing Parasite’s world in a contemporary reality where one’s socioeconomic status often dictates their quality of life and access to everyday luxuries.

Gone are the fantasy and sci-fi elements of Joon-ho’s most recent features — for example, 2013’s post-apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans. Instead, Joon-ho chooses a twenty-first century capitalist society as the backdrop for this thriller, where every twist and turn is entirely conceivable.

Social commentary aside, Parasite never reduces its two families into a mere set of archetypes or symbols. Instead, it carefully crafts its moments of humor and tenderness to paint a realistic portrait of the film’s main cast. The Kims are not portrayed as characters we should pity, but rather they manage to garner the viewer’s respect and admiration through their shared charm, charisma, and resilience in the face of adversity.

The self-centered and vapid Park family often display their humanity, garnering the audience’s sympathy and attention, even as they are rooting for the conniving Kims. Joon-ho himself has described the film as “a comedy without clowns and a tragedy without villains.” This sentiment rings true throughout every moment of Parasite.

Joon-ho’s gentle balance between extremes is proof that the director is working at the peak of his abilities. Especially in the film’s latter half, long portions of it would often go on without a breath heard in the theatre, as everyone anxiously anticipates the main characters’ next daring move. The silence would then be broken by a lewd remark, absurd bit of slapstick, or sudden violence without warning.

Attachments to characters are built, destroyed, and restored several times over the course of the film, building toward a climax that switches the gaze away from the misfit families and instead toward the capitalist countries that allow the vast wealth disparities it showcases to occur in the first place.

Parasite goes on sale as part of the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s regular-season screenings starting October 2.

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