In Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, Tilda Swinton looks out at the scraggly lower-class citizens who live in the steerage section of the title train and tells them: “You suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed.” The same might be said of the main family in Bong’s Parasite.
Struggling but scrappy, the Kims consist of an out-of-work father (Song Kang-ho, star of a handful of other Bong films) and mother (Jang Hye-jin), as well as a brother and sister (Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam) who are in their late teens or early 20s. From their semi-basement apartment, the Kim family watches—at street level—the world pass them by, if not drunkenly piss on their building. (They’re not in the best neighborhood.)
When the son happens into a tutoring job with the Parks, an obscenely rich family, the Kims see an opportunity: with a few white lies and some scheming, all four of the Kims worm their way onto the Parks’ domestic staff, without anyone knowing they’re related. For awhile, things seem to be working for all parties involved, but there is the creeping sense that the lower-class Kims might be suffering from the misplaced optimism of the doomed. Can they endure the increasing indignities of being part of the servant class? If their ruse is exposed, what will the repercussions be? Is it possible that everyone in this story is a parasite of some kind?
The class critique in Snowpiercer had all the subtlety of an axe fight; Parasite isn’t quite that blunt, but it isn’t subtle either (tomahawks are eventually involved). The genius is in the way the movie’s little details and character touches lead to an absolutely bonkers climax—after a shocking twist I won’t reveal—that nevertheless feels inevitable. If last year’s Shoplifters, from Hirokazu Kore-eda, featured a Japanese family in similarly dire economic straits and gave them a hug, Parasite does the opposite. It’s like Shoplifters’ ugly twin brother, who’s kept hidden in the basement. In spirit, the movie more closely resembles the work of Yorgos Lanthimos, whose Dogtooth and The Lobster provide an unblinking look at how dark humanity can get and use humor to only further twist the knife. (Whenever you laugh in Parasite, you quickly feel bad about it.)
This isn’t to say the characters are despicable. Song, as Mr. Kim, is especially easy to sympathize with, considering his genial demeanor and soft face. When he overhears the Parks discussing his particular odor—one they describe as a “subway smell,” but he knows comes from his below-ground apartment—he sniffs his own shirt as shame crosses his face. In a later, knife-twisting scene, Mr. Kim is driving Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) on a series of errands and she puts her bare feet on the seat next to his, right near his head. That would be insulting enough, but in the driver’s mirror he catches her holding her hand to her nose to block out “his” smell, even opening her window to let in some fresh air.
Yet just when you think you’re on the side of the Kims, they do something that gives you pause. At first it’s only eyebrow-raising—as when Mrs. Kim gives one of the Park dogs a rough shove—but things begin to escalate. (Later, Mrs. Kim has a well-placed kick that is at once one of the movie’s funniest and most horrifying moments.) Eventually, when the Kims have an opportunity to help “fellow members of the needy” but decline, we understand the significance of the film’s title: class distinctions aside, what really matters is whether or not you’re willing to sacrifice your own well-being on behalf of someone else. If not—if you only take and never give—you’re a parasite.
The production design, by Lee Ha-jun, is nothing short of brilliant in the way the sets are often defined by levels. The basement view window that teases the Kims is echoed by the vast, floor-to-ceiling expanse of glass that allows the Parks a view of their pristine lawn. When a torrential rainstorm hits the city, sewers overflow so that the shit literally flows downstream into the Kims tiny hovel. Even one of the many moments of suspense hinges on who is up and who is down; when they need to hide from Mr. and Mrs. Park in their spacious, austerely decorated living room, Mr. Kim and his children have no choice but to slide under the wide, low coffee table, as if they’re preparing themselves to be embalmed.
That’s about all I can say without giving away the movie’s wildly entrancing twists and turns, to say nothing of where the film leaves us. More than the other Bong pictures I’ve seen—The Host and Okja, as well as Snowpiercer—Parasite reveals a wicked imagination that’s nonetheless intensely focused on the real inequalities of the everyday.