Parasite is a woolly farce about a family of tramps that gradually morphs into a class satire. It’s almost two films that become one in the end, both of them compelling, but brilliant together. That director/co-writer Bong Joon Ho seems so thoroughly unhurried to reveal the second before its time, that he’s so confident that the audience will go with him wherever he takes us, are the hallmarks of a filmmaker who’s peaking. Parasite is like the cinematic equivalent of watching Michael Jordan in a ’90s playoff game.
Passion, class consciousness, and willingness to push a story beyond the boundaries of the natural world have always characterized Bong’s work, as in his previous two movies, Okja and Snowpiercer. But if those movies began with the fantastic and sucked in the natural along the way, Parasite is a feat of gradual world expansion that takes us places we never saw coming and brings us along for a sublime crescendo. If not his best movie yet, it’s certainly his most elegant.
The Kims are a family of lovable tramps who grift in order to get by. Led by their tousled patriarch, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), they live in a basement apartment where they open the windows during neighborhood fumigation to kill their roaches, infiltrate a taxi company’s cafeteria to cadge free meals, and weez free wifi from a recently-opened hipster coffee shop after their upstairs neighbors adds a password. The wave of rising prosperity engulfing the country around them seems to have passed them by, but they seem content to occasionally catch a ride on the floating debris. “The best plan is no plan,” Ki-taek sagely advises his college-aged son, Ki-woo. “That way everything goes according to plan.”
One day they get a visit from a well-scrubbed college boy family friend Min, (Park Seo-joon), who has brought with him a mysterious rock that is said to bring material prosperity to the family who possess it (the magical rock is to Parasite what the magical cat is to Inside Llewyn Davis, and as I’ve said, virtually every film could be improved with a magical cat character). More importantly, he’s brought a proposition: he wants Ki-woo to take over his job as English tutor for a rich high school girl while he goes on study abroad.
Ki-woo is skeptical at first: aren’t English tutors usually university students? But Min tells him just to lie, and eventually Ki-woo is persuaded. Not only does he take the job with the affluent Park family, who live in a gorgeous mansion designed by the famous architect who used to live there, soon he’s scheming to replace all their hired help with his own family — whom the Parks don’t realize are related. He uses a combination of dirty tricks and appeals to matriarch Park Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong)’s weaknesses, whose status consciousness and various insecurities (notably her association of anything American with affluence) leave her vulnerable to the Kims’ various ruses. Eventually, the Kims replace their entire household staff — sister Ki-Jung as the “art therapist” for the Park’s Native American-obsessed son, Da-song, his mother, Chung-sook as the housekeeper, and eventually his father as the family’s driver.
Parasite‘s elements of class parable are subtle at first — Yeon-ko renaming Ki-woo “Mr. Kevin,” the fetishization of anything American, the subtle jabs at North Korea, the absentee financier father and high-strung mother, and especially the way Yeon-kyo prioritizes her family’s cleanliness, education, and security over any fidelity to her long-time staff. Poverty, in the Park’s world, is synonymous with dirt, disease, undereducation — a shame to be avoided at all costs. Even if it means putting people who the day before you would’ve considered practically family into the street.
At first, the grifting Kims’ and the gullible Parks’ values are roughly in line. The Kims are ruthlessly cutthroat towards the fellow strivers who stand in their way, and the Parks, though operating under the false pretenses the Kims create, display an arguably even more ruthless lack of loyalty. At first, it’s a symbiotic relationship. Gradually though, cracks begin to appear. Notably, in a tell-tale scent the Kims all seem to share — “like old radishes” — which we come to realize is the smell of poverty. They can fake degrees and resumes, but they can’t shake the literal scent of desperation.
The first half of the film has enough charming touches to keep it compelling, but at first it seems almost overly-mannered — old fashioned even, a comedy of etiquette. The Kims, with their constantly disheveled hair and slouchy, ill-fitting clothes, are a rogue’s gallery of lovable scamps, almost Chaplin-esque, albeit with an edge. Bong weaves class and culture signifiers into this light farce much the way Alfonso Cuarón did in his breakout 2001 film Y Tu Mamá También, which similarly masqueraded as a teen sex comedy. (If anything, Bong’s touch is even more deft — Y Tu Mamá También needed voiceover.)
It’s not until at least an hour in that Parasite evolves into something darker, odder, more incisive, more recognizable as a movie from the director of Snowpiercer. It takes all the things that seemed anecdotal about the first half and weaves them into a coherent whole. What seemed at first like a comedy of manners becomes a satire of the class conflict that underpins the development of those norms. Bong doesn’t blow up the natural world he’s built around Parasite, which essentially takes place in contemporary Korea, but he manages to inject just enough of the fantastic to make us believe that there’s more to the world than just what we can see — a twist on the old Sixth Sense trick (I’m being vague about some of the specifics here to avoid spoilers).
Parasite is a parable about class, about status and competition, about the complicated ethics of striving, and about the rich’s ever-present anxiety about losing their place. When one of the Kim kids says Madame Park is “nice,” Chung-sook shoots back, “Of course she’s nice. I would be nice too if I was this rich.”
She compares money to an iron that smoothes out life’s problems. For as much as it has smart commentary on class, though, ultimately what makes Parasite so great is that Bong never takes the iron to his own idiosyncratic impulses. Parasite is about capitalism and class, yes, but it’s never a one-to-one allegory. It tracks well enough that you could enjoy it without caring about those issues, though you’d still probably internalize some of them intuitively. It contains enough elements of the fantastic and the absurd that you’d never find yourself sitting there thoughtfully stroking your chin going “Ahh, I see, so the bananas are supply-side economics.”
That’s boring, and Bong Joon Ho is nothing if not not-boring. Parasite doesn’t attempt to solve the world’s problems, or even to entirely explain them. It’s a woolly meditation from one of our woolliest meditators. Bong Joon-ho cements his place as one of the greats.