People will tell you that Parasite is best if you dive in with no knowledge whatsoever of the story. Respectfully, I disagree. If you’re familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s more mainstream oeuvre such as The Host (2006), Snowpiercer (2013), and Okja (2017), you’d probably expect this to be an action-packed sci-fi flick –– even the title of “Parasite” suggests a gruesome creature feature. Instead, Bong keeps the satirical elements of his previous work while simultaneously ensuring the constantly-shifting-but-mostly dark tone stays consistently grounded, making his latest feature feel more akin to his Korean-language crime-drama Mother (2009) than anything else he’s made before. The one aspect every single one of Bong’s films have in common? An incisive injection of spot-on socio-political commentary. And this is his sharpest yet.
Having already tackled the pollution of the Han River, climate change, and factory farming in his previous filmography, Bong now focuses on the plague of the shrinking middle class. His Palme d’Or winning film –– the first Korean entry ever to do so –– is centered on the impoverished Kim family, a close-knit group of four who lives in a shoddy basement apartment while barely making a living by folding pizza boxes. When a friend offers teenage son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) a tutoring job for the wealthy Park family, he snaps at the chance. Soon, the Kims plot to take advantage of the Parks through subtle subterfuge –– if they can get each domestic helper fired, they can replace each with a different member of their own family, effectively quadrupling their household income and providing them with a luxurious estate to stay in. Daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) becomes the new art tutor, father Ki-taek (frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho) becomes the new driver, mother Choong-sook (Jang Hye-jin) becomes the new housekeeper. Things soon begin to spiral out of control, but this first act is pure dark comedy –– it’s immensely gratifying to watch the crafty Kims so effortlessly manipulate and dupe the gullible Parks into a seemingly symbiotic relationship.
Which begs the question … If the Parks aren’t technically being hurt, then are the Kims really the titular parasites? At first, it seems this is the case, as Choong-sook herself compares her family to cockroaches. Sure, they’re living the high life in the Park family’s architectural wonder of a mansion, but as soon as the lights come on and the true owners return, they’re forced to scatter like bugs. If they’re dismissed for any reason, they’re right back to squatting in their cramped basement apartment, where the Wi-Fi is far from plentiful and drunkards piss outside their half-windows.
That recurring drunkard is not to be dismissed. He illustrates that, yes, the Kims are struggling, but at least they aren’t pissing in the streets. As Jordan Peele’s similarly themed horror-satire Us (2019) argues, there is always someone suffering more than us. Though Peele critiques the horrific history of America specifically, the overall message of class consciousness translates internationally.
So, perhaps, it’s the Parks who are the true parasites. In reality, they and other elites are the ones who benefit from the poor, leeching off of their underpaid labor. Bong urges us to look at these social issues from multiple points of view, while also critiquing the limited and ignorant perspectives of the rich. For example, one scene shows Mrs. Park musing about how the rain is a “blessing,” washing away the dirt and grime of the impoverished while simultaneously providing free water for their perfectly mowed lawns. To the Kims, to the homeless, to anyone who doesn’t have the luxury of a completely water-proof shelter, the rain is a dangerous burden. While one sits inside and drifts asleep to the soft pitter-patter of raindrops on their roof, the other is completely displaced, desperately seeking refuge at overcrowded shelters. Do the wealthy genuinely care about the well-being of the homeless, or do they just care about being able to walk down the streets without being constantly reminded of the suffering that comes attached to the high price of their success?
Still, Bong refuses to diminish his characters into two-dimensional stereotypes. Even the Parks have their troubles, especially the naïve Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong), who is completely reliant on her wealthy husband (Lee Sun-kyun). It’s precisely this relentless commitment to authenticity that makes Parasite‘s richly layered metaphors (impossible to discuss without indulging in spoilers) and thematic theses all the more powerful, since life itself isn’t made up of clear-cut heroes and villains. Parasites have their virtues, and altruists have their vices. Even as the plot ramps up and the tone starts to shift from dark comedy into tense thriller, Bong keeps a masterful hold on the reins. The conducive result is the best film he’s ever made, and potentially the best of the year. Believe the buzzing hype of the Bong Hive –– he’s making a bee-line for that Best International Film Oscar.