The last time Bong Joon-ho made a parable of class warfare, he set it aboard a kinetic, speeding metaphor: a train looping endlessly around a frozen Earth, its passengers divided into cars based on wealth and status, upward mobility achieved only through lateral revolution. Parasite, the South Korean director’s loopily demented and brilliant new movie, doesn’t boast quite as sensational a setting; it takes place mostly within a chicly modern suburban home, all high ceilings, stainless steel countertops, and windows instead of walls, advertising the elegant interior decoration within. But there’s a clear class hierarchy at play here, too; it runs top to bottom instead of front to back, vertically instead of horizontally. And though we’re watching a kind of warped upstairs-downstairs story, not a dystopian brawler, Parasite races forward with the same locomotive speed as Snowpiercer, with plenty of its own twists and turns waiting behind each new door.
Given the title, one might assume Bong is dipping his toes again into science fiction, perhaps even fashioning a belated follow-up to his vigor-filled monster movie, The Host. But the only parasites here are human. The film begins with a nakedly relatable moment of leaching, as the members of a poor Seoul family, the Kims, scurry around their mucky, basement-level apartment looking for a few bars of free wi-fi, after one of the local businesses, sick of having their network slowed down by freeloaders, finally got around to installing a password. It’s an opening moment that immediately sets the film’s comedic rhythms and central character’s economic status. That Parasite title, though, is how some might describe the twentysomething Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), who early on fakes a college degree to hustle his way into an easy job tutoring a rich teenager. He definitely needs the money. Ki-woo, after all, lives in the aforementioned cramped basement apartment with his father, Ki-taek (Bong’s muse Song Kang-ho); his mother, Chung-sook (Chang Hye-jin); and his adult sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam). To make ends (barely) meet, they fold boxes for a cheap pizza company. When exterminators spray the street outside with toxic chemicals, the Kims leave their windows open, they’ve got a bug problem, and can’t turn down a free solution to it.
Parasite took home the Palme d’Or (essentially Best Picture/best film) at Cannes earlier this year, and it briefly bears a certain resemblance to last year’s winner, Shoplifters, which also concerned an impoverished family doing whatever it takes to get by. But for Bong’s close-knit schemers, “whatever it takes” goes pretty far. From the moment Ki-woo steps into the swanky Park residence, he seems to recognize opportunities beyond the academic needs of the teenage Park family member Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). Her mother, the affluent Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong), is as gullible as she is comfortable — and Ki-woo, who calls himself “Kevin,” quickly manipulates her parental anxieties. But by her side is her longtime housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun), and together they’re the only ones there to look after the kids. And both of them definitely need looking after. The aforementioned Da-hye is a horny student who treats her tutors as indentured make-out partners, while little Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) is a hyper-active kid with some real trauma and a budding artistic streak that his mom likens to Basquiat with a straight face; Parasite, like all of Bong’s films, is laugh-out-loud funny until the moment it’s not. Soon Ki-woo’s sister is masquerading as an art-therapy specialist, “Jessica,” who promises to help Da-song with his imaginary trauma. And when that somehow works, the Kims begin conspiring to free up some other spots on the payroll… the ones already occupied by the family driver and the longtime housekeeper.
For a while, Parasite is just pure devilish fun: a kind of con-artist where the con is turning one-percenters into unwitting job creators. Bong, who cowrote this sharp screenplay with Han Jin-won, stages the elaborate machinations of the plot like a heist movie, cutting nimbly back and forth between planning and execution. The Kims meticulously forge documents, write and rehearse their “dialogue,” almost what Ocean’s Eleven might look like if George Clooney and his boys were desperate petty swindlers using their savvy just to secure gainful employment. Yet that’s only half of the film’s grand design. Saying too much more about the complications that spring up might spoil the big surprises it begins dropping around its midway point. Bong, of course, has always been a devious genre alchemist; his movies often zig when you expect them to zag. But Parasite isn’t just thrillingly unpredictable. It pivots with purpose, the class politics setting the trajectory.
Giddy one moment, unbearably tense the next, and always so entertaining and finely tuned that you don’t even notice when it’s changing gears, Parasite takes all of the beats you expect to find in a Bong film and shrinks them down with clockwork concision. Bong practically pulls off a magic trick in the way he’s able to pull things off, making an entire breathless setpiece from a single wooden table. (Bong, working again with cinematographer Hong Gyeong-Pyo, craft images with such searing virtuosity using human faces and simple household environments to create moments of hilarity as well as pure horror.) There’s nothing as epic as the opening of The Host, but Parasite still contains a number of inspired sequences that pulse with the same chaotic madness of Bong’s signature moments. But exciting as they are, all of them produce a heart-in-your-throat queasiness that comes with not knowing who deserves to survive. Bong has a profound empathy for Ki-woo’s family, but his plot hinges on the damage their aspirations have on others. Likewise, the Park family is never portrayed as explicitly “bad,” even if their money has made them a little dumb and desensitized.
Abstaining didacticism, Parasite takes the complicated feelings that indentured workers have for their employers and conducts it into an intensely metaphoric symphony of respect and contempt. It’s not sustainable, but when it all collapses it can just start over at the top of the cycle. There’s a reason why many of Bong’s films usually end by restoring some version of the status quo. But by that though, there’s a reason why Parasite feels like his most downhearted film to date, and also his angriest. If the third act becomes a touch anticlimactic for how fast Bong stitches up some fresh wounds in order to race towards his ending, that feeling is redeemed by a massively powerful final shot that puts all of the director’s work in perspective. Unlike his previous movies, which all had more readily available precedents, the hyper-kinetic anguish here only relates back to his previous works. It clarifies a shared dream of co-existence, and the closer his characters come to making that dream a reality, the more devastating it is when everything goes off the rails or crashes down on itself. Directed with electrifying, razor-sharp precision, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a story of deep humanity, shifting its tone with notes of rage as this incredible film slowly transforms its comedy to tragedy.