Fits as comfortably among the warped class portraits of the director’s American work as it does the grisly, darkly farcical satires of his early period.
Bong Joon-ho returns to South Korea after a decade of making films abroad with Parasite, a film that fits as comfortably among the warped class portraits of his American work as it does the grisly, darkly farcical satires of his early period. It establishes its protagonist family, the Kims, as a literal underclass, living in a hovel apartment below street level, their narrow windows affording just enough of a view of the alley above them to allow the sight of drunks pissing in the street to spoil their appetites at dinner. We see from the outset that this is a family of hustlers; patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is a driver always on the hunt for a client, while wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) folds boxes for a next-door pizza joint. In a sense, they are not unlike the clan of scroungers in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, though where that film’s characters committed crimes of survival, the Kims clearly show a willingness to break the law to get fully out of their economic rut.
That opportunity comes when the Kims’ son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), is tipped by a friend preparing for a study-abroad to fill in as a tutor for the classmate’s wealthy clients, the Parks. Conning his way through an interview with Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong), Ki-woo gets the job of tutoring the family’s teenage daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). The Park home is located in a wealthy community and surrounded not with urban clutter but vast yards of immaculate grass that stretch out from wall-sized windows. The home is the polar opposite of the Kims’: giant but uncluttered, ironically communicating warmth with the distance and personal space that a large house provides. Bong shoots the home with geometrically precise compositions and minimal movement that emphasizes the sedate nature of wealth, but from the moment Ki-woo steps into the house, the film begins to brim with tension at the jealousy and lust it inspires within him.
With the lucrative gig, the young man can provide for his family, but he decides to go much farther to secure the Kims’ fortunes. Gradually, the family enacts a series of schemes to supplant the Parks’ many servants with themselves, from framing the family driver for a sexual indiscretion to convincing the paranoid Mrs. Park that the maid, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), has plague. Soon, the entire family ingratiate themselves with the Parks, including daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), who poses as an art teacher for the Parks’ young, insular son.
That the Kims wage such all-out war on those who work for the Parks dovetails with one of the most crucial elements of Bong’s satires. The class dynamics in Bong’s work often prove frustrating in the films’ last acts, though their frequently messy, self-defeating conclusions are in fact the point, not a dramatic shortcoming. Bong’s most vicious class commentaries indict the poor along with the rich, acknowledging the bad hand that the have-nots are dealt while suggesting that the very nature of capitalism makes even its victims culpable in upholding the system. The Kims may trick the Parks, but it is the other workers who are far closer to their own social status than that of their bosses who the Kims truly victimize.
Bong’s macro gaze of the corruptions of greed and inequality only broaden further in the film’s second half, when the Parks go on a camping trip that allows the Kims to briefly take over and pretend to be above their station. As they explore the various crevices of the house, they discover more and more secrets, including an upheaval that suggests that the Kims are merely the latest in a line of people whose dreams of the Parks’ wealth and status rubbing off on them, and that long-term exposure to this delusion can cause insanity. Complete with one of the most grotesquely funny but tragic codas of recent years, Parasite suggests that its title could apply as much to the rich as those who would do anything to join their ranks, presenting a system in which the hope of ascending the social ladder keeps everyone at the rung on which they were born.