If you know Bong Joon-ho from The Host, Snowpiercer or Okja, you might spend all 132 minutes of Parasite waiting for a twist toward the absurd. For American audiences, at least, he’s built his career on futuristic and surreal premises that take things beyond what most safe science fiction offers.
This time, though, the writer-director plays it straight. Though his latest has shocking moments of violence and surprising reveals, there’s no mythical creature lurking in the background. Parasite is about very human people making very human choices, which only adds to the oomph of their gripping consequences.
Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and his family — wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) — are struggling to make ends meet when Ki-woo’s friend emerges with an offer: become a tutor for a young rich girl. After a few moments with the Park family (Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong), the Kims see dollar signs. Ki-jung becomes the son’s art teacher, Ki-taek becomes the driver, and the family collaborates to toss out the longtime housekeeper and get Chung-sook the job. That’s when the trouble begins.
Though the struggles of the Kim family are readily apparent, Bong introduces them in a light and airy fashion. Their schemes to ingratiate themselves within the Park family are dark fun; we want to see them worm their way in and take advantage of an overly opulent lifestyle, and all four actors are brilliant in elevating these characters to their new heist-esque roles.
The reveal of what lurks underneath the Park residence changes everything. All of a sudden, it’s not the haves versus the have-nots. The fright of the Kim family feels genuine, as does their choice to fight back and ensure their own status. They’re wrong, of course. The Parks have plenty to go around, and logically anyone in need would find plenty of opportunities to skim a little off the top.
But logic goes out the window when money is involved. Bong pushes his characters to the brink in so many subtle ways: the uptight demeanor and unspoken critiques from Mr. Park, the flightiness and uncertainty from Mrs. Park, the ever-present idea that this family doesn’t deserve what they have. It creates a real and sometimes unconscious pressure on the Kims; once they get a taste, they can’t turn away.
Bong has never shied away from imbuing his films with social commentary: Okja was a rather on-the-nose critique of factory farms, and Snowpiercer also tackles class quite literally with its increasingly opulent train cars. It’s nice, however, to see him leave science-fiction tropes behind and focus directly on people. He’s an auteur with storytelling skill to spare; there’s no shame in using sci-fi elements as metaphors, but it’s refreshing to see a more stripped-bare feature, especially one this powerful.
It’s easy to focus on the vicious ending and Ki-taek’s subsequent fate, but the most striking scene is also one of its most absurd. After the Kim family escapes an incredibly tense evening at the Park residence — during which the tension is cranked to a remarkable level — they arrive home to find their semi-basement apartment flooding from heavy rain. As they try to save their possessions, Ki-jung sits on a toilet spewing human waste and quietly ponders their lives.
She’s presented as the most silently conniving of the Kims, so we can only imagine what she’s thinking after being returned to such a harsh, disgusting place. The entire family is beleaguered and bleary eyed, which ultimately leads many of them to unfortunate ends. But Bong never heaps sympathy on the poor or demonizes the rich; it feels like his concern is their shared humanity and the inevitable onset of human nature.
But is it human nature, or is it a social construct? Will the poor always betray their own for the chance to get rich, or has that become baked into modern society after hundreds of years of forcefully designed class structures? Parasite doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s terrific at asking the questions.