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'Parasite': An 'Upstairs, Downstairs' Thriller Bound for Oscars

You'll be hearing plenty about Bong Joon-ho's Cannes Film Fest prizewinning masterpiece

Rating: R

Run time: 131 minutes

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Stars: Song Kang-ho, Woo-sik Choi, So-dam Park, Yeoh-jeong Jo, Sun-kyun Lee

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho, 50, the first-ever Korean winner of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, lives up to the hype with this genius genre-bender. Set in Bong's native South Korea, Parasite is a thrilling, twisted tale of two cities that contrasts two families: one rich, one poor.

The unemployed Kims struggle to survive in a stinky semi-basement in un-genteel poverty with a view of drunks peeing in an alley. Up the hill and across town, the posh Parks spread out in an architect-designed split-level villa — not so different from the elite family compound of last year's best foreign language winner Roma.

But unlike Roma, this film doesn't surrender to any black-and-white nostalgia about love and mutual respect between the haves and have-nots. Bong, the director of the outlandish and intelligent films The Host and Snowpiercer, quickly escalates the class warfare inherent in the two clans’ relative places, emphasizing the Upstairs, Downstairs inequality.

The families’ disparate lives become entangled when the Kims’ underemployed college-aged son (Woo-sik Choi) gets a gig tutoring the Parks’ sulky teenage daughter. Before long he insinuates his forger sister (So-dam Park), securing her a spot peddling art therapy to the Park's naughty prepubescent son.

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With a bit of clever chiseling and the energy of a caper, out go the Parks’ chauffeur and the housekeeper. Enter Mr. and Mrs. Kim (Bong's frequent leading man Song Kang-Ho, 52, and Hyae Jin Chang). For a brief moment of near security, the slum family has risen by their wits to unexpected riches.

Naturally, it's short-lived. When the Parks take their spoiled son glamping for his birthday, the Kims take over the villa. They luxuriate in liquor and a world where they can see the sky from an actual backyard. They're in fat city — until they're interrupted by the Parks’ former housekeeper, who's returned to reclaim an item she left behind.

From that point, the film erupts, taking a violent and darker turn. And yet the narrative remains rooted in a strong sense of character. Each interaction within the Kim family reveals more about its members individually and how they function as a unit in the face of adversity — and how the indolent Parks surround themselves with dysfunction and judgment and sensuality and are essentially lost to each other.

Moving with a liquid swiftness despite a 131-minute running time, Parasite builds on a series of amazing sequences, including the Kims’ desperate escape from the antiseptic villa through rain-soaked streets, plunging down, down, down to the slums where overflowing sewage swamps their smelly subterranean flat.

Nimble, funny, complex and heartbreaking, Parasite is a stinging indictment of economic inequality. It's also a rip-roaring tale of two cities and two families colliding with such force that society itself could crumble and collapse into chaos. Like last year's movie for grownups Roma, this South Korean entry will be a frontrunner for best foreign language film come Oscar time — and a likely best picture contender, too.

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