If you ever want to see the severe extremes of a class system, just look around any major city. Bong Joon-ho is aware of this, which is why he takes perverse pleasure in how he’s staged Parasite, a masterful passion play about the immense gap between those with money—lots and lots of money—and those without. While one family, the Kims, are introduced literally occupying space below sea level in a scuzzy apartment they insist is a “semi-basement,” another lives on a hill. Scratch that, the Park family lives above the hill, complete with a landscaped and walled off garden that acts like a mini-Eden above the unseen, urban riffraff.
Such are the incongruous realities of living in the same Seoul. Within this juxtaposition Joon-ho presents Parasite, which premieres this week at the New York Film Festival, as a “tragi-comedy” (his words) that’s funny until it’s not. Showcasing how one enterprising family is able to latch on to the wealthier one’s fortunes, with no one being the wiser, this is a darkly amusing masterwork about the never-ending tale of two cities. All in one.
Parasite’s protagonists, the Kims, live with boundless ingenuity, if limited optimism. During the opening scene, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) orders his teenage children to leave their windows open, so as to allow the city exterminators’ fumigation to give their flat a free treatment. Obviously residing in a heightened satirical world, each family member is in keeping with Joon-ho’s traditional heroes, taking grandiose action with minimal hesitation. In this case, there is never even a visible discussion when the college-age son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), hears from his richer friend that there’s an opportunity to tutor a young girl living in one of the city’s richest neighborhoods. While Ki-woo might have aspirations of going to university like his buddy, he is still his father’s son and enters the Park home looking for other positions his family can exploit.
By contrast, the Park family is rudderless since its patriarch, Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), is always busy at work or with wandering his eye. So Ki-woo merely needs to impress this palatial home’s flighty mother, Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong). She’s well-meaning but oblivious enough to not notice her daughter would rather kiss Ki-woo’s lips than learn English from them. So Yeon-kyo’s no match when the new tutor flatters her younger son’s (lack) of artistic talent and mentions he knows of an art tutor who just returned from graduate work in the United States—failing to mention that Ki-jung Kim (Park So-dam) is also his sister.
Soon the paternal Mr. Kim has inserted himself as Mr. Park’s chaufer, and Mrs. Park misses that the only person in the house with a clue about what might be going on, housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun), is being pitted against her by her husband’s new driver. Moon-gwang has lived in that home longer than the Parks and seems nice enough, but she needs to go if there’s to be room for the Kims’ own mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), who becomes a fourth revenue stream from the unsuspecting Parks.
Writer-director Bong Joon-ho has enjoyed one of the most impressive and original filmmaking careers of the early 21st century. Making his name internationally with the horror-drama The Host, the Korean talent successfully crossed over to Hollywood productions, directing satirically rich genre works that became instant cult classics. In Snowpiercer, Chris Evans lived on a speeding train after an apocalypse, a literal metaphor for income inequality. With Netflix’s heartbreaking fairytale about the meat industry, Okja, Joon-ho made audiences cry for a CGI pig that looked as much like Eeyore as Babe. But with Parasite, Joon-ho not only returns to his native country but matures as a filmmaker by crafting a masterpiece with nary any genre trappings.
To be sure, there is more than one startling twist in the film’s later acts that unpredictably plunge the dark humor into an even darker sorrow. In reaching this end, he does lean on the ability to shock like only the man who showed Jake Gyllenhaal torturing Okja could. However, Parasite is not a horror movie or even a thriller. Rather it is a striking parable that accepts that no matter how entrepreneurial or well-meaning a lower-income person might be, where matters of class and upward mobility are concerned, only bitterness and disappointment await. In this vein, he uses the wide, yawning spaces of the Park home to create a paradise in the proverbial clouds for the Kims, but they’re fooling themselves to think they belong there in the long-term.
The sad thing is that other than perhaps Mr. Park, all members of both families are likable. The scrappiness of the have-nots is obviously endearing, but there is nothing distasteful in how sheltered and trusting Mrs. Park is, save for that her naivety itself could be construed as a sin. In one of the most striking exchanges in the film, Mr. Kim admits, like his children, that he is growing fond of the Parks; they’re nice! “They’re nice because they’re rich,” his wife shoots back. The Kims might be having this argument between too many drinks, but unlike their employers, they cannot afford to be cosmopolitan.
All of the actors superbly depict this train, which you know is going to go off the rails but are unsure of how or when. And still they ingratiate you into their fantasies—especially poor Ki-woo who cannot let go of a useless gift from his one rich friend, as if by keeping it, he too will somehow be gifted wealth. Jo Yeo-jeong and Lee Jeong-eun also have quite specific, and contrasting, comic gifts that keep you rooting for all parties, even though capitalism insists someone must be forced back to the bottom.
When things inevitably do fall apart, the movie might scare some, but not because it’s horror. Rather there’s a plausibile banality to what brings things to a head, even as events manifest themselves in strangely theatrical ways. In less gifted hands, the sudden tonal shifts might be as jarring as if Molière was replaced mid-sentence by David Mamet. But in Joon-ho’s hands, the effect is stunning, all the way to the film’s final haunting image. It is, and will almost certainly remain, the best movie of 2019.
Parasite premieres at the NYFF on Oct. 5. It opens in limited release on Oct. 11.