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‘Parasyte: The Grey’ review: A cutting, bite-sized watch

Lé Baltar

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‘Parasyte: The Grey’ review: A cutting, bite-sized watch

SERIES. Jeon So-nee as Jeong Su-in, aka Heidi, in 'Parasyte: The Grey.'


'Parasyte: The Grey' creates drama by wielding the anxieties of its protagonist to interrogate what is human and what is not, to talk about trauma and the many ways we try to mend it

Spoilers ahead.

To some critics, Parasyte: The Grey, the latest South Korean horror added to Netflix’s library, is a mixed bag mostly because it deviates from its source material, the Japanese manga created by Hitoshi Iwaaki, already adapted into the screen prior to this. Of course, risks are always in place when it comes to translating a familiar work into another form; the pressure to cave into viewer expectations.

But the gamble, in this case, spurs its director and co-writer, Yeon Sang-ho, of the post-apocalyptic film Train to Busan, to come up with a rather thrilling realm of experience — a retelling that can very well stand on its own.

And it’s not as if the limited series runs a vastly different course. If anything, its engine remains to be the core of Iwaaki’s work: parasitic creatures rain down from the sky, with the prime instinct of taking over human host bodies and banding together to secure their survival. But there exists an aberration: the mutant Jeong Su-in (Jeon So-nee), a woman, who’s much older than the highschooler protagonist in the manga, trying to nurse her awful past. 

Working as cashier in a local store, Su-in is tracked and nearly knifed to death by an irascible customer she had a heated argument with. During the incident, the parasite, later named Heidi, muscles into Su-in’s body, healing her in the process but also failing to take full command of the host, thereby entering a half-human, half-monster cohabitation of sorts. 

In this retelling, though, Su-in cannot communicate and come in contact with Heidi in real-time, hence the letters they write to each other. The parasite can only take over when its host is asleep, or when there is danger. So, helping Su-in figure things out is Seol Kang-woo (Koo Kyo-hwan), who’s searching for his younger sister, while trying to keep a low profile after being caught in a gang war. In a sense, he acts as the vessel that keeps both forces grounded.

The initial attack begins at a crowded, neon-lit rave, where a DJ, after falling victim to the slithering worm-like parasite, goes on a killing spree, slicing every party-goer in sight. And unlike the tentacled monster in Gyeongseong Creature, or perhaps the cordyceps in The Last of Us, the alien creatures in this terrain possess the ability to shapeshift and synchronize with their human hosts, making them far more tricky and dangerous. They can transform their heads into tentacle-blades. They can fly, too. 

And whereas plenty of live-action adaptations collapse into subpar computer-generated imagery, the visual rendering in Parasyte: The Grey does not share that particular burden. The gory, head-splitting images, with the realistic details put into it, really make for an ecstatic body horror, maybe not on par with the cinematic lexicon of David Cronenberg, but nevertheless serve its function.

Notably, those who haven’t acquainted themselves with the source material won’t have a hard time picking up the story because the series easily gets into its whys and wherefores, while still leaving room for introspection, considering that it’s limited to six episodes. Even the procedural angle blends well with the narrative. “Team Grey,” a task force ordered to wipe out the parasitic race, begins to track more monsters through sonic waves as identified by “the hunting dog,” who turns out to be the husband of head detective Choi Jun-kyung (Lee Jung-hyun). The detective soon hunts Su-in, after thumbing through her medical record and learning about her suspicious healing abilities, though not without resistance from Kim Chul-min (Kwon Hae-hyo), the chief detective at Namil Police Station, who once saved young Su-in from her abusive father.

‘Parasyte: The Grey’ review: A cutting, bite-sized watch

Much of the story really just orbits around the four central characters, as all sides attempt to prevent Kwon Hyuk-joo (Lee Hyun-kyun), the pastor who leads the parasites into forming an organization and who secretly gets help from Chul-min’s assistant, Kang Won-seok (Kim In-kwon). 

But apart from its alien invasion premise, which has been the selling point of several South Korean titles lately (perhaps hinting at a pandemic metaphor) — All of Us Are Dead, #Alive, Kingdom, Sweet Home, just to name a few — what makes Parasyte: The Grey a cutting, compelling, bite-sized watch is how it creates drama by wielding the anxieties of its protagonist to interrogate what is human and what is not, to talk about trauma and the many ways we try to mend it. Prime example of which is when Su-in gathers that Heidi keeps her out of danger beyond the mere necessity to survive.

The parasite becomes part of its host, sharing not only the same mind but also the pain, the inner life she’s been trying to bury all this time. Mutant or not, the show argues that there’s good even in the most impossible of places. – Rappler.com

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.