by Andrew Wyatt on Nov 20, 2019

Ever since his breakout film 2006 film The Host took both creature-feature fandom and the arthouse crowd by storm, South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has built his reputation on a darkly whimsical mastery of tone and genre. The sort of whipsaw tonal shifts that another director might fatally fumble are the torches and chainsaws that Bong deftly juggles – all while nonchalantly taking bites out of an apple. Granted, his features are easy enough to summarize at the plot level. Notwithstanding his status as an auteur’s auteur on the international cinema stage, the filmmaker’s works are typically straightforward parables, narratively speaking. Describing Bong’s features in terms of genre or theme is a trickier matter, which seems to be how the director prefers it. His last two features, Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017) are both speculative satires that would make Jonathan Swift proud. Yet labeling them as science-fiction somehow feels like understatement, despite the presence of a futuristic city-train and genetically-modified super-pig, respectively. Both films also feature liberal doses of action, horror, slapstick, and pathos – not to mention some grotesque mugging from renowned actors – rendering succinct classification a challenge. Bong doesn’t so much switch or subvert genres as he does sample and remix for his own “para-generic” purposes, illustrating that categories are ultimately reductive and that the best stories use tropes like a straight razor rather than a stencil.

The director’s latest feature, Parasite, has already been making a splash at arthouse box-offices thanks to a Palm d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival, glowing notices from critics, and unexpected word-of-mouth success. A cynical contrarian could be forgiven for being a bit skeptical about such universal acclaim, but Bong’s new film is everything that its buzzy reputation suggests. It might not be the filmmaker’s most ruthlessly focused work – his small-town mystery Mother (2009) has a raw intimacy that sets it apart from most of his filmography – but it certainly feels like Bong’s opus, the film that he’s been working towards for a decade and a half. Parasite attests to a filmmaker at the peak of his powers, telling precisely the story he wants to tell in a way that showcases his distinctive virtuosity. Perhaps the most proximately appealing thing about the film, however, is how fiendishly unpredictable is proves to be. At several points, the viewer will doubtlessly think they know where the screenplay by Bong and Han Jin Won is headed, and they will almost certainly be spectacularly wrong. In an era where an unearned smugness attends even self-proclaimed arthouse films that are much more schematic than they imagine themselves to be, Parasite is the rare feature that’s as delectably volatile as it is immaculately crafted.

Like Mother, Parasite finds Bong working in a more grounded domestic sandbox, eschewing ravenous monsters and dystopian machines – or, at least, the literal kinds – for a twisty tale of two very different families in contemporary Seoul. The first are the Kims: a clan of scrabbling, low-income survivors, dwelling in a dingy, cluttered semi-basement apartment where they mooch WiFi from their neighbors and live off a cobbled-together assortment of menial gigs. The latest involves folding pizza boxes, a task they half-ass – before wheedling their young supervisor into cutting their pay by just 10% for the sub-standard containers they deliver. This illustrates the Kims’ ethos handily: They’re hustlers at heart, people who think nothing of shirking an honest day’s unskilled work when they detect a more profitable way to expend their energies.

An outsider would doubtlessly label the Kims as lazy bottom-feeders, but this undersells how hard they’re willing to work to keep a scam going – a resolve demonstrated by how readily college-age siblings Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam) clamber into the family’s filthy, cramped toilet nook to sniff out a single bar of illicit WiFi. Ki-woo is painted as the most well-meaning member of this clan, a sweet and earnest college dropout who is nonetheless quite smooth at deception. Meanwhile, his sister, his mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and his father Ki-taek (perennial Bong player Song Kang-ho) are much more churlish and grasping, treating each fresh setback as an obstacle to swindle their way around. If the Kims have an overriding virtue, it lies in their iron solidarity – their matter-of-fact “us against the world” outlook. A different kind of film might have taken this as a dramatic challenge, using conflicts to strain the bonds within this nuclear family of cheerful lowlifes. Parasite is up to something else entirely.

One day Min (Park Seo-joon), a former university friend of Ki-woo, drops by to gift the family with a suseok, a decorative good-luck rock. As it happens, Min has been working as a private English tutor for the adolescent daughter of a wealthy family, but he explains that he is leaving South Korea to study abroad for a year. He offers the tutoring job to Ki-woo, suggesting that he embellish his academic credentials as a supplement to Min’s personal endorsement. Thanks to some artful dodges during his interview – and a bit of cunning document forgery from his art-school-dropout sister – Ki-woo easily lands the tutoring position with the Parks, an affluent family who dwell in a gorgeous modernist house designed (and once occupied) by a celebrated South Korean architect. Daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so) takes a shine to the gentle and handsome Ki-woo immediately, as does her young mother Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong), who – true to Min’s description – comes off as a bit of a naïve trophy-wife. Father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) is a successful tech executive who works long hours, leaving Mrs. Park with Da-hye and their energetic young son Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun). Meanwhile, the cooking, cleaning, and general management of the Park household falls to housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun), a holdover from the original architect’s staff.

After observing Mrs. Park's indulgent doting over her young son’s paintings, Ki-woo sees an opening and suggests an art tutor he happens to know by reputation. (Mrs. Park’s gushing over Da-song’s messy masterpieces, which are no different from the tossed-off creations of any child, is but one the film’s many low-key jokes made at the expense of the Parks’ cluelessness.) In short order, Ki-jung is installed as Da-song’s “art therapist,” and from there the Kims’ infiltration of the Park household proceeds with the mechanical precision of a Bond villain’s master plan. Ki-jung frames Mr. Park’s chauffer for having sex in his boss’ car after hours, and then suggests “old family friend” Ki-taek as his replacement. The Kims then force out Moon-gwang by exploiting her allergy to peaches and staging her symptoms to look like a tuberculosis infection. Chung-sook is thereafter hired to replace her, via a boutique service that Ki-taek just happens to recommended to Mr. Park.

The quadruple con goes swimmingly for a time, allowing the Kims to sock away their lucrative paychecks to potentially buy a house or business of their own someday. (They still retreat to their dank semi-basement every night to toast their ingenuity over ramen and cheap beer.) Yet despite the family’s deceptions, callousness, and generally exploitative attitude, they perform their new jobs in good faith: teaching, driving, cleaning, and cooking exactly as the fastidious Parks demand. When Ki-woo eventually confesses his infatuation with Da-hye and his intention to propose to her once she finishes school, it's only then that the Kims start fantasizing about how they might usurp the house out from underneath the Parks.

Alas, it is not to be. It is almost precisely at this moment – when the Parks are away on a camping trip and the Kims are filching freely from the fridge and liquor cabinet – that Parasite takes the first of several intense narrative swerves. To reveal much more would be to undermine one of the great cinematic experiences of the year. Suffice to say that Parasite abruptly takes on the aspect of a horror film, then a tragedy, then back to horror, all the while stirring in fragments of a slapstick comedy, a somber family drama, and a Coens-esque criminal fiasco. The film’s twisty, unpredictable plotting bears more than a passing resemblance to that of crowd-teasing scorchers from David Fincher, Miike Takashi, and fellow South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook. One can also discern something of the icy European art-horror of Michael Hanneke and Yorgos Lanthimos in Parasite, particularly Lanthimos’ still-underappreciated masterwork The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). (In addition, a few plot points in Bong’s film echo those in specific American, French, and Italian B-grade horror flicks, but to identify the titles of those features would give away too much.)

Ultimately, however, playing “Spot the Influence” with a Bong Joon Ho film is something of a hollow exercise, not to mention a disservice to the director’s inimitable style. Parasite first and foremost recalls other Bong films, which is a reliable sign that the director has become a freestanding genre to himself. Unlike the easily-parodied late-model tics of, say, Wes Anderson or Terrence Malick, however, Bong’s most distinctive attributes are tonal and thematic rather than formal. Much like the director’s previous works, Parasite invites alternating bouts of giggles, gasps, and stunned silence. It’s an exemplar of cinematic storytelling as a kind of dance: a liquid and ephemeral sequence of movements, where the audience’s moment-to-moment reactions inevitably bleed into one another, creating a sensation that is more than the sum of its parts. This, of course, is the Bong™ brand, a complex gestalt of absurdity, warmth, anguish, tension, and righteous anger that somehow never feels like it’s trying to do too much at once. In Parasite, all of this is conveyed with an unprecedented level of elegance and confidence – and considering the confidence evident in Bong’s earlier features like Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host, that’s saying something. It’s only in the film’s coda – a pathos-steeped passage that runs too long and feels incongruously predictable – that Parasite stumbles, albeit just a little. Then, in the final shot, Bong can’t resist adding one more bitter, forlorn twist, at which point Parasite feels like it could have used some less-is-more restraint where epilogue is concerned.

Plenty of ink has already been spilled regarding what Parasite is ultimately “about,” but in the interest of keeping the more significant plot twists under wraps, it’s probably best to forgo a detailed discussion of the film’s themes. It’s obvious from the outset, however, that the ludicrous (and often inhuman) vagaries of class hierarchy and late-stage capitalism are at the forefront Parasite’s interests, much as they were in last year’s Palm d’Or winner, Shoplifters (2018). Whereas Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda approached the subject by means of a bleak, heartfelt social realism, Bong’s angle is more psychological, exploring how individuals construct their identity in relation to other social and economic strata. It’s certainly not a coincidence that the two families depicted in Bong’s feature are the Kims and the Parks – arguably the Korean equivalent of the Smiths and the Joneses (as in “Keeping Up with the”). In what eventually proves to be more than a humiliating throwaway detail, Mr. Park claims that he can literally smell something off about the family’s new servants. In truth, it’s the damp, musty odor of the Kims’ apartment, carried all the way across town and into the Parks’ home, but it might as well be the indelible stench of poverty, which compels the Parks to recoil no matter how welcoming and generous they try to be.

Indeed, Parasite is a film that seethes with class resentment, although it intriguingly refrains from turning its spite directly on any one character. Unlike Lee Chang-dong's searing neo-noir Burning (2018) – another class-conscious South Korean tale that crackles with menacing energy – Bong’s film is surprisingly generous towards all its characters. The Parks, while depicted as oblivious, narcissistic, and self-satisfied, are not truly the villains of this tale. Despite being an alpha-male executive with control-freak leanings and an oddly sniffy sense of decorum – and therefore an obvious target for the film’s anti-capitalist critiques – Dong-ik is also shown to be a warm, devoted father who would do anything for his children. This points to what might be construed as Parasite’s central argument: When neither workaday grifters nor corporate bigwigs see themselves as villains in a world so awash with inequality and misery, it illustrates that the whole damn system is deeply rotten.

If the film is ultimately more sympathetic to the Kims than the Parks, it’s because the latter family never seems to suffer much. “They’re rich but nice,” Ki-taek warmly observes about the Parks at one point. “They’re nice because they’re rich,” snorts his wife in response, zeroing in on the extent to which wealth and comfort preclude the need for everyday ruthlessness. (In this, Parasite offers an incisive alternative to typical criticisms of the one percent as a uniquely dissolute class.) Yet Bong also takes pains to show – especially in a breathtaking climactic montage that throbs with ill omen – how the sheer niceness of the wealthy can feel like a kind of low-grade tyranny, and how easily that niceness can mutate into breezy disregard for the suffering of others. It’s emblematic of the film's sophisticated depiction of modern society's grotesque indignities, and exactly the sort of tart insight viewers should expect from one of the world’s most exciting living filmmakers.

Rating: A-