The protean South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho doesn’t make what you’d call genre films, even if his past films have included such apparently familiar modes of cinematic expression as a small-town police procedural (Memories of Murder), a kaiju-style monster movie (The Host), a dystopian sci-fi adventure (Snowpiercer), and a fable about animal rights (Okja). Nor would it be quite right to say that Bong’s movies parody the notion of genre, or deconstruct it, or pay pastiche-style homage to one or more beloved works of the past. Rather, what sets Bong apart from every other working director I can think of is his films’ perplexing ability to morph smoothly, within one film and sometimes one scene, from one recognizable cinematic style to another, shedding genres as they lose their usefulness like a snake shimmying out of its skin.
The analogy from the natural world isn’t accidental. Bong’s ever-shifting style can have an organic quality, as if his films were grown rather than made, even though his plots are often intricately structured. He’s said that he storyboards each scene obsessively, but that once the set is built and the camera placements chosen, he gives the actors ample room to improvise and try new things during the shoot. This mixture of methods could account for his films’ simultaneous sense of order and aliveness. Like Alfred Hitchcock, he’s a master manipulator of the audience’s physiological response system, able to play on our natural reserves of pity, fear, anxiety, and empathy while raising and lowering our heartrates at will. But his characters are never mere symbols or pieces on a game board. It’s impossible to imagine him calling his actors “cattle,” as Hitchcock did, or treating his characters’ lives and deaths with the same chilly remove.
Parasite, maybe the best film Bong has yet made, begins as a social-realist drama about a poor family struggling to find work in modern-day Seoul. By the end of its brisk two hours and 11 minutes, it will have cycled through black comedy, social satire, suspense, and slapstick. All the while, the audience’s understanding of and attachment to the central characters has continued to deepen so that their final fate strikes us with the force of tragedy. Parasite also functions as a savage commentary on economic inequality and the violence inflicted by capitalism, but it approaches these themes with such sly wit that it never feels like an “issue movie.”
The cramped semi-basement apartment where we first meet the Kims tells us all we need to know about their circumstances. This family of four live on top of each other amid a welter of packaged food containers, skittering insects, and laundry hung up to dry. The bathroom is nothing but an open toilet on a high ledge. The only way to get a Wi-Fi signal is to roam through the apartment with phone held high, hoping to tap into the network of a neighbor. To make money, the Kims fold delivery boxes for a nearby pizza chain, but even that job is always on the verge of being taken away. As a manager for the franchise makes clear, if they make mistakes or work too slowly, there’s always someone who can fold boxes better and faster.
One day the Kims’ son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), a smart high school graduate who hasn’t had the advantage of a college education, gets referred by a friend to work as an English tutor for the daughter of a rich family, the Parks. On his first visit to the Parks’ house—a sleek, cavernous compound designed by a famous architect—Ki-woo sees an opening for his family’s life to change, and the Kims begin to hatch a plan to infiltrate the household by making themselves indispensable to it. (The other Kims are played, all excellently, by Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin, and longtime Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho.) Before long, the entire Kim family is living off the Parks in the symbiotic relationship suggested by the movie’s title—but who is parasitic on whom exactly, given that the hapless upper-class family is as dependent on the Parks’ labor as the Parks are on their cash?
The first hour of Parasite has the forward-barreling energy of a delirious heist comedy as the Kims work together to engineer their takeover of the wealthy family’s home and fortune. After a wild party scene at the midway point—while the Parks are away on a camping trip, the Kims gather in their living room to drink their liquor and raid their well-stocked fridge—a shocking twist places both families in a different light and forces the Kims to confront an entirely new set of practical and ethical problems.
The second half of the movie opens up in scope, beginning with a spectacularly staged natural disaster that leaves the Kims’ run-down alley (according to the director, a set built in a water tank) neck-deep in black sewage water. Soon after, the secrets both families have been hiding, plus other secrets previously unknown to them both, threaten to come to light in a cataclysm of long-deferred and thrillingly orchestrated violence.
That’s about all you should know about Parasite going in, the better to appreciate Bong’s economy in revealing, detail by detail, exactly what he wants you to know when he wants you know it. This isn’t the kind of class allegory that sets up one group of characters as an easy foil for the other. As oblivious and exploitative as the overprivileged Parks can be, they’re also a real family with desires and dysfunctions all their own. Bong is especially acute at dissecting the patriarchal dynamics at work in the rich family, where the mother’s sheltered existence and financial dependence on her tech-tycoon husband make her an easy target for scammers like the Kims. The critique of capitalism that emerges over the course of Parasite’s story is broad, deep, and, as the movie ends, painfully unresolved. There’s no turnabout-is-fair-play satisfaction to be found in the Kim family’s reversal of fortune, only the exposure of a system that pits families and individuals against each other in a pitiless zero-sum competition for dwindling resources.
Like several earlier Bong Joon-ho films (The Host, Snowpiercer, Okja), Parasite works on one level as an ecological allegory. The Parks’ elegant, expensively maintained home and garden is a kind of aspirational Eden, but one whose luxury comes at immense hidden cost. With its tale of two interdependent but far from equal families, each with one son and one daughter, Parasite also can’t help but recall a great American film from earlier this year, though it was in production long before Jordan Peele’s Us was released. (It was first shown in May at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or, making Bong the first Korean director to win the festival’s top prize.) The theme of the double, so intelligently deconstructed in Us (where the family of “evil twins” turns out to be as worthy of our sympathy as the regular family they seek out and stalk), here undergoes a further transformation. By the end of Parasite, the audience is uncomfortably aware of our complicity with an economic system that allows such deep class divisions to rule our lives and structure our everyday interactions. Our hearts break for the Kims and the Parks—but not before Bong puts those hearts through their paces with a pulse-pounding action finale.