From its start, Parasite is an excruciatingly on-point depiction of hustle, in terms far too unglamorous to ever attach a hashtag to the idea. The members of the Kim family are busy folding pizza boxes in their shitty basement apartment, with the two 20-something kids trying to find an open WiFi signal they can use. (The network they’ve been bogarting suddenly has password protection.) From there, writer/director Bong Joon-ho takes the idea of the gig economy into the time-honored tradition of the con film, before turning it into a reverse home invasion thriller and then curdling it into a horror slasher. It’s the smartest mainstream film about class made in many years, and the fact that it is also supremely entertaining is just icing on the bloodied cake.
The Kims’ son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), catches a lucky break when a buddy vouches for him to take over his gig as an English tutor for the teenage daughter of the wealthy Park family. Noting that Park matriarch Keon-ko (Jo Yeo-jeong) is, to put it nicely, a massive idiot, Ki-woo forms a scheme for upward mobility in the form of clawing others off the social cliff. First he has his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) pose as a friend of his, a high-class “art therapist” for Keon-ko to hire to instruct her supposedly gifted young son (Ki-jung is all too happy to indulge the fantasy). Then they get the Parks’ chauffeur fired so that their father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) can take his place. And then they get the housekeeper fired so that mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) can take her place.
Occupying the first hour of the movie, watching the plan unfold is an absolute blast. Bong, who makes it a point to toy with genre (having previously delved into sci-fi, mystery, and action), perfectly understands the setup-complication-payoff rhythm of a satisfying con story. But Bong is also never content to just let the conventions of genre merely play out. The Host is a monster movie about dysfunctional family dynamics and government ineptitude. Snowpiercer is an action movie that gradually indicts the inherent authoritarianism and destruction of capitalism. And as fun as it is, the scheming in Parasite is unsustainable, with the Kims eventually colliding head-on with another lower-class family’s entirely different con (the reveal of which is one of my favorite movie moments of the decade).
What started out as fun “What will they pull off next?” anticipation turns into dangerous tension, as if a lava pit were to suddenly open up below a high-wire act. What plays out from there is a literal rendering of how capitalism pits the disenfranchised against one another as a matter of course, that inequality is a feature and not a bug. Having already established that the Parks in no way deserve their obscene wealth (they are neither intelligent nor produce anything useful; the reveal of Mr. Park’s job is in fact a joke non-reveal, so vague is his company’s purpose), Parasite lays bare the lie that hard work could bring anyone to their level. The Kims are reduced to scrambling about the Parks’ giant house, trying to avoid detection and keep their deception alive.
Bong is one of the most aesthetically sly directors on the world stage, openly using mise en scene and framing to wink at the audience. Journeying between the Kim and Park households involves literal ascents or descents, as the rich family’s house is on an actual hill. Over the course of Parasite, the viewer becomes as familiar with its layout as the characters, as its myriad personal secrets are revealed, continually re-contextualizing what’s going on. It is full of passages and stairways made for snooping, with the vagaries of modern design making for many places to hide behind or under. The house itself is the host body, its inhabitants the “parasites” fighting to survive.
There’s a level of universality in Parasite‘s story, but to leave it at that would be to ignore the specificity of how it unpacks capitalism within South Korean society. And that goes beyond the fact that “pizza box folding” isn’t a universal part-time gig. Ki-woo and Ki-jung impersonate students of respectable credentials by using English names with the Parks, becoming “Kevin” and “Jessica.” Ki-woo believes the family’s fortunes stem from their acquisition of a “lucky rock.” A major plot point involves anxiety over nuclear conflict with North Korea. Mr. Parks’s non-job is but one facet of Korea’s gargantuan, labor-abusing tech industry. All of this culminates in a haunting spin on the common motif of “dreaming for a better life.” The suggestion is that ultimately, dreams are all most folk will ever have.
Parasite opens in theaters October 11.