The stunning mansion that serves as the central location in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a site of contradiction. The open, spacious luxury home—a feat of modern architecture—features wide, open windows that show off the glorious back yard and surrounding upper-class neighborhood. The interior’s wide expanse suggests everything is within view of its inhabitants, and yet so many secrets and truths are concealed inside like a Russian doll.
Here is where we lay our scene between two families: the affluent Park family, headed by illustrious tech giant Park Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), and the Kim family, a lower-income family of four who live in a shoddy basement; they’re lucky if they can bum internet service from the café upstairs or if the town drunk doesn’t pee right in front of their window. Your sympathies lie with the Kims from the start, but the brilliance behind Bong’s Parasite is that it betrays your instincts, setting you up for one narrative before subverting it with another.
Feeling adrift as his family drowns in debt, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) is visited by his old classmate and friend, Min (Seo-joon Park), who asks the former to take over his gig tutoring a rich teen girl named Da-hye (Ji-so Jung). Despite not having an English degree, Ki accepts under the behest of Min, who offers his recommendation to Da-hye’s simple mother, Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo). What Ki-woo lacks in experience he more than makes up for in street savvy, and he enlists his sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park), to doctor some fake diplomas to seem qualified for the job.
It turns out that Yeon is more than impressionable, as she’s instantly astounded by Ki-woo’s teaching style; upon learning the family also needs an art teacher for their rambunctious 8-year-old son, Ki-woo suggests a “distant acquaintance,” who is actually Ki-Jung. Once she wows Yeon, Ki-woo and Ki-jung then scheme to overthrow the Parks’ help one by one, from their loyal housekeeper to the unassuming chauffeur, to be replaced by their mother, Chung-sook, and father, Ki-taek (Bong regular Kang-ho Song), under assumed identities.
All works out for both families: The Parks are pleasantly doted on by their new employees, and the Kims are now bankrolled out of the poor house. But neither clan is saintly—which, Bong suggests, is what makes their relationship work so well. Relying on their susceptibility, the Kims finesse the Parks, while the Parks exploit the Kims for labor and keep them in check, never regarding them beyond their servitude. This symbiotic, idyllic collaboration is challenged when the Parks depart for a camping trip, leaving the house in Chung-sook’s care. The film then shifts into something completely different, with the previous comedic, cunning sequences making way for something much more chaotic and suspenseful.
Bong’s marvelous bait-and-switch wields hypnotic power with its wonderful balance of humor, drama and horror, and yet it never forgets its main objective of singling out the trenchant class war at the core of the film. The divide between both groups is clearly defined, and the juxtaposition between the Parks’ opulence and the Kims’ abject poverty is searing (Bong and co-writer Jin Won Han made the film culturally specific to South Korea’s economic disparity, but it could easily apply to that of the western world’s—or wherever capitalism reigns). Of all the Kims, Ki-woo is most seduced by the carefree, privileged lifestyle of the Parks and their attractive ilk, and his yearning to reach that level of wealth is ultimately heartbreaking.
Through their quick-talking and ad-libbing, the cast make Parasite a sensational watch. Showcasing his panache for mis en scène, Bong establishes the sets and locations (save for the Parks’ palatial estate) to vibrate with an electric energy and “lived-in” experience you could almost smell, while the Parks’ huge, austere home succeeds in making the viewer feel claustrophobic and at times even terrified.
It’s gratifying to see Bong back in his element, after a period of directing English-language features (2017’s Okja, 2013’s Snowpiercer) that weren’t poorly received, but still fell under the radar and were slept on by the movie-viewing public. With a Palm d’Or award from Cannes and wide critic adulation under its cap, Parasite will undoubtedly catch the attention of global viewing audiences and reinstate Bong as one of the most innovative storytellers of our time. Culturally, we’d be much more richer for it.
Parasite was directed by Joon-ho Bong; written by Joon-ho Bong and Jin Won Han; and stars Sun-kyun Lee, Ji-so Jung, Yeo-jeong Jo and Kang-ho Song.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.