“Parasite,” the latest release from the brilliant film director Bong Joon-ho, opens on a cramped, squalid apartment in which the four members of the impoverished Kim family—family patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-Ho), his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), their son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Kim-jung (Park So-dam)—reside. Unable to find steady employment and struggling to make ends meet, the Kims must resort to folding cardboard pizza boxes for cash and trying to steal WiFi from their neighbors. When someone sprays pesticide on the street outside, Ki-taek tells his wife and children to leave the windows open, in the hopes that the noxious chemicals will get rid of the stinkbugs infesting their home.
Financial hope for the Kims comes in the form of Ki-woo’s childhood friend, who needs someone to take over his job tutoring the daughter of a wealthy local family while he studies abroad. Ki-woo doesn’t actually have a college education—in fact, he has failed the entrance exam four times—but a Photoshopped diploma proves enough to get him in with the genteel Park family.
The contrasts between the Kims and the Parks are immediately obvious. While the Kim family squats in a basement apartment at the bottom of a series of staircases, the Park family lives in an immaculate glass and concrete mansion on the top of a hill, with an expansive private yard and a beautiful view of the stars. The Parks are elegantly coiffed and decked in designer clothes, always lightly snacking on fresh fruit prepared by their housekeeper, obsessed with appearances and other people’s opinions.
“I don’t usually trust people, unless someone I know recommends them,” Park matriarch Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) says.
The Parks are a faultless portrait of aspirational wealth and pedigree, and the imbalance and contrasts between the two families—how they weave their way into each other’s lives—consumes “Parasite.” Once Ki-woo manages to infiltrate the Park household as a tutor, the rest of his family soon follows, lying their way into jobs as the family chauffeur, housekeeper, and art tutor. For its first hour or so, “Parasite” is a darkly entertaining story about a family of scammers, but the film slowly evolves into something bolder and more twisted. It’s a heist thriller of the quotidian, in which no everyday object—a piece of fruit, a child’s drawing—is too trivial to be weaponized. Bong, his camera at once ecstatic and controlled, brings the pieces together like a conductor attacking a great symphony. But even as he lures us into a wicked sense of complicity with the Kims, he also suggests that they aren’t the only ones with something to hide.
As this allegory of class divide plays out, you may find yourself wondering about the exact meaning of the movie’s title. At first it seems the parasites must be the Kims, who are so interdependent that they often seem less like individuals than members of a single, unified organism. (At times, they even squat and crawl around in private, like stealthy four-legged insects—or perhaps just people accustomed to low ceilings.) But then, surely the title more truthfully describes the Parks, whose lives of extravagant luxury represent the real moral and financial scourge in a ruthless late-capitalist society.
Bong refuses the crutch of an easy target. He peels back the layers of privilege to expose the tremendous sadness and patriarchal cruelty of the Park household, where Yeon-kyo lives in fear of her husband and instinctively prioritizes her son’s needs over her daughter’s. The Kims are a model of functionality and egalitarianism by comparison, and while they may covet their employers’ prosperity, there is never any real doubt here about which is the more loving, stable family unit.
“Parasite” is filled with vivid conversations that remind us how the Parks can’t imagine (or don’t care to imagine) how the other half lives. In one scene, they coolly discuss how poor people smell: like an old radish, according to Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun), or a rag that’s been boiled. The Kims, on the other hand, seem to understand the rich all too well. When Ki-woo describes Mrs. Park as rich but nice, his mother is quick to correct him—in fact, she’s only nice because she’s rich.
“Money is an iron,” Chung-sook says. “It smooths out all the creases.”
Tara Joy can be reached at email@example.com.