The title of Bong Joon-Ho’s latest, Parasite, might lead viewers to suspect they are in for another wildly imaginative creature feature from the director of Okja and The Host. And sure, Bong’s tragicomedy features significant genre trappings. Parasite‘s set-up is straight out of a snappy con-man caper, and the film proceeds to pay it off with a twisty plot that defies all reasonable expectations. But cinephiles might be surprised to find a uncannily close kinship between Parasite and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s understated 2018 drama about the working poor, Shoplifters. (Both films won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in their respective years and, despite the fact that prizes don’t prove anything, they are both likely the two best films released these past two years.)
Like Shoplifters, Parasite is focused on a poor family whose money-making prospects are so minimal that they depend on petty crime just to survive (or, more specifically for Parasite‘s down-and-out clan, to turn their wi-fi back on so they can check their phone messages). Bong’s frequent lead actor Song Kang-ho is the slightly dopey head of this hardscrabble household, a jack-of-all-trades whose most recent ploy is getting the family paid for folding delivery boxes for a local pizza shop.
Train to Busan‘s Choi Woo-shik is the enterprising son who stumbles onto what feels like the family’s salvation. Choi’s old school friend hooks him up with an English tutoring gig for a privileged and pretty young high schooler (Jung Ziso). Choi’s character takes on the English name “Kevin,” and heads to the rich family’s sleek, modern mansion with fake credentials in tow.
Cho Yeo-jeong is Mrs. Park, the wealthy wife in charge of hiring. She maintains a facade of being with-it and well-put-together, but her mask doesn’t completely hide her insecurity and disconnection. She hires Kevin because he is self-assured, which in turn leads him to realize that this family is ripe for bilking. He claims that he knows an in-demand art teacher to help manage Mrs. Park’s rambunctious, arrow-shooting, headdress-wearing little son (Jung Hyun-Joon). The teacher to which Kevin refers, “Jessica,” is of course just his good ol’ sis (Park So-dam). It takes less than a day for the family to start plotting to get the parents into the house, to replace the current chauffeur and housekeeper.
Parasite is soaked in class commentary, with the poor family finding themselves quite comfortable living like the wealthy — though never truly fitting in. Bong typically expresses this class divide in visual terms that viewers can choose to unpack or not. The narrative decision that the poor family lives in a semi-basement apartment, where they frequently have to contend with people pissing on them from the adjacent alley, comes off as both a funny running gag and a pretty dead-on summation of their place in the social ecosystem.
Without giving too much away, Bong returns to another basement as both a plot device and as a metaphor for the underclass, living and serving unseen by the oblivious rich. Of course, in Bong’s vision, that basement is also soaked in horror-movie-style dread and the potential for intense, icky violence.
Parasite is well-cast and brilliantly acted, balancing the story’s cruel farce with performances of genuine pathos and pain. Song Kang-ho as the poor family’s fumbling dad and Cho Yeo-jeong as the quietly crumbling rich mom are the multilayered MVPs of this film, adding shades of sympathetic ambiguity to what could easily be stock characters.
I really hesitate to say much more. Parasite is smart in its construction but also in the ideas it teases. It’s a film that will be a joy to discuss for years to come, but it would be a shame to snuff out that joy prematurely by revealing too much here. So I’m going to cut this short. Go see it! Expect the unexpected! It’s a hell of a flick!
Parasite opens in New York and LA on October 11, before platforming to select cities. (And, if there is any justice, hopefully beyond!)
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.