The last time Bong Joon Ho made a parable of class warfare, he set it aboard one hell of a moving 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 demented and ingenious 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 arcade 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 rip-roaring monster movie par excellence, The Host. But the only parasites here are human. That, anyway, is how some might describe the twentysomething Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik), who fakes a college degree to hustle his way into a cushy job tutoring a rich teenager. He definitely needs the money. Ki-woo, after all, lives in a cramped basement apartment with his father, Ki-taek (Bong regular Song Kang Ho); his mother, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin); and his adult sister, Ki-jung (Park So Dam). To make ends (barely) meet, they fold boxes for a cheapo pizza company. To stay connected with the world, they crouch on the kitchen sink, picking up a faint wifi signal from a nearby café. 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 scored the Palme d’Or (essentially Best Picture) at Cannes this year, and it briefly bears a certain resemblance to last year’s winner, Shoplifters, which also concerned an impoverished family, of sorts, doing whatever it takes to get by. But for Bong’s close-knit schemers, “whatever it takes” goes far beyond the five-finger discount. From the moment Ki-woo steps into the swanky Park residence, he seems to recognize opportunities beyond the academic needs of the teenaged Da-Hye (Jung Zisa). Her mother, the moneyed Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo Jeong), is as gullible as she is comfortable—and Ki-woo, who calls himself “Kevin,” quickly manipulates her parental anxieties. Soon, his sister is masquerading as an art-therapy specialist, “Jessica,” who promises to help the wealthy family’s rambunctious grade-school-age son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon Jun), overcome 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 diabolical fun: a kind of con-artist story where the con is turning one-percenters into unwitting job creators. Bong, who co-wrote the razor-sharp screenplay with his Okja assistant director 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,” and go fake car shopping to learn the features of a Benz—it’s what Ocean’s Eleven might look like if George Clooney and his boys were desperate grifters using all their savvy just to secure gainful employment. Yet that’s really 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 mark. Bong, of course, has always been a devious genre alchemist; his movies, like the terrifically unresolved police procedural Memories Of Murder, 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.
The film turns out to be a kindred spirit to Jordan Peele’s Us, another genre hybrid about the subterranean lives of the have-nots, eked out below those of the oblivious haves. What Bong is after is the way capitalism pushes people to extremes and pits them against each other in a zero sum game for survival. “Money is an iron,” Chung-sook says at one point of her employers, arguing that their privilege and security smooths out any wrinkles in their personalities; they can afford to be nice, because they don’t have to fight for anything. Parasite has an undeniable social conscience, but it rarely feels moralistic. Partially, that’s because Bong doesn’t create a simple good/bad dichotomy between these entwined clans. The Parks, including the family’s slickly ambivalent patriarch (Lee Sun Kyun), are more thoughtless and blinkered than malicious—they’re not quite cartoon bourgeois pigs. And the Kims are far from saints, or noble emblems of working-class perseverance; besides some of the unsavory tactics of sabotage they use to assure their entrenchment in the household, there’s the lopsided romance that develops between Ki-woo and his high school pupil—an icky element that the film plays pretty matter-of-factly.
Maybe Parasite is just too wildly entertaining to ever become a screed. Bong, working again with cinematographer Hong Gyeong-Pyo (who also shot the best movie of last year, Burning), crafts his images with such virtuosic confidence that he puts the vast majority of Hollywood blockbusters to shame. There are sequences in this movie good enough to leave a viewer giddy with disbelief; one involving a mad scramble to hide within the film’s posh suburban palace plays out on a vertiginous tightrope between hilarious and nail-bitingly suspenseful. Parasite cuts a jagged path from screwball farce to violently unhinged thriller to something like tragedy—it’s the Bong special, a rollercoaster (or, you know, Snowpiercer) ride across the vast spectrum of genre. What lingers, though, is the melancholy chill of its final destination, and what the film has to say about the pipe dream of keeping up with the Joneses. When you can’t beat ’em or join ’em, is there anywhere to go but down?