Parasite is an eat-the-rich comedy that combines Groucho, Harpo, Chico – and Karl

Chris Knight: While you could write a college paper about the rich-vs-poor conflict playing out on the screen, it’s also easy to just sit back and watch the fireworks

Woo-sik Choi and So-dam Park in Parasite. Neon

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We’re hearing the term “quid pro quo” a lot these days, but in fact we as consumers trade “something for something” almost every day. You (hopefully) paid something to read this review. I’m getting paid to write it. Who comes out ahead in the bargain?

The newest film from Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong (Snowpiercer, Okja) sets up a situation where one family decides to enrich itself at another’s expense, using the oft-cited legal precedent of “they can afford it.” (That’s “praestare possunt” if you want it in Latin.)

The Kims – mother, father and two university-age kids – are cagey in their poverty. They gig a living making pizza boxes, and stretch their income by sharing one plate at the all-you-can-eat buffet. When they say grace before a meal, it’s to thank the man upstairs – literally – for having a simple password so they can skim off his wifi.

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Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) gets a visit from a friend who is going abroad, and who suggests that Ki-woo fill in for him as an English tutor for a wealthy high-school girl. Introductions are made, and Ki-woo gets the job. “We’ll call him Kevin,” says the girl’s mother, Mrs. Park (Yeo-jeong Jo), tossing an envelope of money at him.

The Park home could not be further from the Kim residence, which is below street level and so cramped that they walk around doubled over. Ki-woo is in awe of its airy spaces, manicured garden and glass-and-steel construction.

This is too good not to share – and so in short order he suggests that his friend “Jessica” (actually his sister) is just the art therapist their little boy needs. And in slightly longer order, Dad signs on as Mr. Park’s new driver, and Mom gets a job as the housekeeper, after the previous incumbents prove unworthy of their jobs, with a little nudging from the Kims.

This is all great fun to behold. The director keeps us very much on the side of the parasitic Kims, and paints the wealthy Parks – the neurotic housewife, the bland businessman and their spoiled kids – as just gullible enough that we can convince ourselves they had it coming. If the Kims hadn’t taken advantage of their deep pockets and trusting natures, surely someone else would have.

Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi, and So-dam Park in Parasite. Neon

And yet Bong isn’t finished with us yet. The film runs two and a quarter hours – not a minutes of it wasted – and the second half involves a great surprise. It turns out the Park home has its own secrets, revealed in a dark twist that shifts the emphasis from satiric comedy to thriller territory, and almost into horror. Bong leads us into this realm slowly and expertly, often relying on an eclectic soundtrack – opera one moment, a jazzy all-drums set the next – to carry us forward.

And while you could write a college paper about the rich-vs-poor conflict playing out on the screen, it’s also easy to just sit back and watch the fireworks. The scene where the Parks have gone away for a camping trip and the Kims have the run of the house – until the owners make an unexpected early return – is a priceless piece of comedic timing. With its economic underpinning, it’s as if the Marx brothers had included Karl.

5 stars

Parasite opens Oct. 18 in Toronto, Oct. 25 in Montreal and Vancouver, Nov. 1 in Ottawa, and Nov. 8 across Canada.

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