Maybe you can’t actually eat the rich; but you can steal their lunch, and their life: That’s the essential premise of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a serrating, brilliantly stylized portrait of class and fate and family in modern-day Korea.
The Kims — Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), his wife Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), their son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park) — live dead-broke but cheerful in a dingy basement apartment in Seoul, scuttling up into ceiling corners to tap free Wi-Fi and pre-assembling pizza boxes for spare change.
Ki-woo doesn’t seem to be in any huge rush toward gainful employment, but he catches a lucky break when an old friend hands down his job as an English tutor for a teenage girl from a wealthy family. No actual tutoring experience, or even a college degree? That’s easy enough for Ki-jung to fix with a little creative Photoshop. And the Parks, or at least their fussy, fluttery young matriarch, Yeon-keo (Yeo-jeong Jo), are a very credulous people.
First they welcome Ki-woo into their gorgeous box-modern home; then, when Yeon-keo mentions that her youngest could use another art instructor, the new tutor is happy to share his casual, completely unbiased advice: There’s a girl he’s heard great things about — just a distant acquaintance who goes by Jessica and happens, unbeknown to the Parks, to share his home and approximately 50 percent of his DNA.
It’s not long before the entire family has infiltrated the Park household and stealthily filled every corner of their personal service economy: cooking, driving, caring for their children. But what Bong (Snowpiercer, The Host) chooses to do once he’s laid down the narrative kindling isn’t pour on gasoline. Instead he tends to his little fires carefully, revealing the full messy humanity of his characters bit by bit — all the half-buried flaws, quirks, and aspirations that live somewhere between the obvious signposts of good guys (poor) and bad (rich).
What the story doesn’t seem particularly interested in, for all its class consciousness and social currency — and the glut of prestige festival prizes, including the Palme d’Or, already on the mantel — is drawing any clean, easy lines between outer wealth and inner worth. Bong has more than enough to say about the disconnect between money and meritocracy, the vagaries of family, and the things people do when the social contract is suddenly stripped away. But he does it with so much wit and heart that it almost feels like a party trick: swirling big-swing provocations into the creamy peanut butter of crowd-pleasing entertainment.
That’s what makes its final moments so unsettling, and so unforgettable. If the movie is a Rorschach of who you identify as parasite and host, it’s a test you’re just as likely to fail; a filmgoing experience that refuses to fit into any box, and forces viewers to breathe the dangerous air outside of it too. A–
(Parasite premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be in select theaters beginning Oct. 11.)