Palme d’Or winner Parasite is a gripping, frequently funny modern classic

A poor family’s and a rich family’s lives unexpectedly intersect in this Palme d’Or-winning tragicomedy from South Korean auteur, Bong Joon-Ho (Okja). It’s gripping, it’s frequently funny, and as Flicks editor happily explains, it’s a modern classic.

On paper, Parasite may look a familiar beastie—chronicling the divide between haves and have-nots (hello, other films by director Bong Joon-ho), it’s a Palme d’Or-winning tale about a down-on-their-luck family, none of whom are averse to a scam (hi, last year’s Cannes winner Shoplifters). But surface similarities be damned, Parasite charts its own course, into some unexpected territory and burrowing right into your head.

Living in a sub-basement, leeching off the neighbour’s WiFi and clinging to employment opportunities like the mass folding of pizza boxes, the Kim family struggles to get by at even a subsistence level. Bending the truth, exaggerating, and outright lying are the available tools to get ahead, bolstered with some nifty internet cafe digital forgery when college-aged Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is handed the opportunity to be an English tutor by a friend. The family turns out to be wealthy, they want bona fides (even if they don’t check them), and Ki-woo quickly sees the opportunity to turn a little lie into a series of them, gradually getting the other members of his family employed in a range of service positions. The catch being, the four Kims can’t let on they know one another—and then there’s another catch, then another…

Shaking off the more obvious genre elements he embraced in recent films Okja and Snowpiercer, director Bong’s grounded this tale in a contemporary cinematic reality, but still seems to relish a mix of tones. Comedy, drama and thriller elements prove balanced ingredients in his hands, with plenty of scope for pointed observations of human nature. The humour’s pretty black, and the film leans towards the grim in both narrative and look, while Bong manages to conjure edge-of-the-seat moments out of everything from the mundane to over-the-top.

As a domestic thriller, Parasite is efficient and effective, and even more so as a sometimes voyeuristic look inside two very different families where camera and characters intrude on private moments. Like the title suggests, this is not a symbiotic relationship, and as morals become muddled and stakes become ever-higher it’s to Bong’s credit that our sympathies seldom stray far from the film’s central anti-heroes.

Proving he doesn’t need the trappings of a sci-fi future or cartoonish satire to make a point (not to mention that “serious” critical attention comes more readily without them), Bong has crafted a modern classic. It’s a gripping, frequently funny and often nerve-wracking film in which one family’s attempt to survive modern capitalism may just show that some of us already live a somewhat dystopian existence.