Dir: Bong Joon-ho. Starring: Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam. 15 cert, 132 mins
The world can seem a very different place depending on the window you’re looking out of. Out of their stinkbug and mildew-infested basement apartment, the Kim family sees steel bars. Beyond that, one of Seoul’s backstreets – the kind that drunks dive into to relieve themselves. When the street fumigators go by, they leave their windows open so their apartment can be treated for free, even if they nearly choke to death in the process. Then there’s the Park family, settled in a quiet suburban home that’s halfway between an art installation and a fortress. Half the walls are made of glass, offering a clear view of the acid-green lawn outside and the vegetation that encloses it on all sides. It’s a vista of immense serenity, safety, and eerie perfection.
The Park patriarch Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) is a tech CEO who’s barely home, while his wife Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) is fluttery and fragile. She obsesses over the imagined artistic genius of her son. He specialises in angry, rebellious scribbles. Toy dogs keep appearing out of nowhere. Are they multiplying in secret?
It’s into this shiny, hollow world that the Kim family try to integrate themselves, after the son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is hired as an English-language tutor. He immediately hatches a plan to get the rest of the clan – which comprises his parents, Ki-taek (veteran actor Song Kang-ho) and Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin), as well as his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) – employed. Their schemes are exhilarating, as clever and intricately plotted as they are mildly preposterous. For much of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which the director co-wrote with Han Jin-won, the audience is swept up in the heady thrill of the con. We see them forge documents, invent aliases, and carefully rehearse their lines.
But Bong has never made a straightforward film in his life – that’s why he’s one of the great masters of the cinematic game (his awards recognition is long overdue, with Parasite landing six Oscar nominations). The director’s work is as playful as it is sincere and revelatory. He’ll make you feel at home, and then rip the rug out from under you. As his takes on the monster movie (2006’s The Host) and dystopian fantasy (2013’s Snowpiercer) already proved, the director has an affinity for genre cinema, but has never felt confined by its rules. Parasite doesn’t quite take place in our world, but neither is it fantasy. It happens in a world that would exist if people’s desires and motivations weren’t stuffed below the surface.
The director’s always shown an interest in class conflict. The train in Snowpiercer is just one big metaphor for capitalism, after all. But Parasite might be his most intricate examination of the topic so far. The “parasite” of the title applies to every character in this film; the rich leech off the poor, who in turn survive by attaching themselves to the underbelly of the ruling class.
Everyone’s fixated on transforming into something else: the Kim family give themselves new backstories that involve fancy foreign colleges and elite skill sets. Yeon-gyo is obsessed with American culture (the most capitalist of them all), importing Native American-style toys for her son and declaring he’s the next Basquiat. In Parasite, capitalism is an illusion piled onto another illusion, with everyone trampling each other to reach some undefined goal.
Much of this story, however, isn’t told in words, but in the use of space and the way people move through it. The Kim family are often bundled into the same frame, perched awkwardly on furniture and fittings so they can all fit. They’re a united front in this battle. The Park family, meanwhile, always sit in separate rooms or sides of the frame. No wonder they’re so weak and easily manipulated.
But, be warned: there are no victories in Parasite. And no one gets away scot-free.