At the beginning of Parasite, the new film from director Bong Joon-ho, the Kim family is so far down on the economic ladder that they’re literally underground. Their cramped, cluttered apartment is in the basement of a South Korean urban building, giving them the a prime view of drunkards urinating against brick walls to go with the occasional wafts of fumigation mists through the window. Mere subsistence in a constant hustle, requiring ingenuity and tenacity. The world presses down on them and shows no sign of relenting.
Fortunes seems to be shifting somewhat when the family’s eldest son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), picks up a job tutoring. The family he works for is prosperous and completely detached from the sort of scrappy street smarts that are a defining trait of all the Kims. Instead, they are so insulated from hardship that it’s taken as a given that everything will go well for them, always and forever. Almost by instinct, the Kims see this obliviousness as an opportunity. Bit by bit, the Kims become more enmeshed with this wealthy family. Using the sort of inspired, graceful visual storytelling that has long been his greatest skill, Bong stages sequences of the Kims creating vacancies that they can then fill. In these stretches, Parasite performs a daredevil jump of social satire while adorned in the zip-up suit of a heist movie.
In a way, Bong is traveling on tracks he already laid down five years ago with the masterful Snowpiercer. His new film is similarly committed to slam-bang entertainment as a means to exposing the perpetuated economic disparity in society. Where the earlier film was a feat of grim, fantastical science fiction, Parasite is focused on a more realistic portrayal of the here and now, albeit one that allows for devilish extremes that echo the cunning of Alfred Hitchcock. The film gradually shifts into a mode that positions it on the narrow border between thriller and horror film, until Bong almost seems to be taunting both the characters and the audience. He has zingy audacity as he sends the film spinning into a strange territory of colorful bleakness.
Parasite is overstuffed with themes and ideas, leading it to rattle anxiously with deliberate contradictions. It’s an approach that can easily transform a film into a tedious thesis, a creative argument meant only for those who begin from a place of eager agreement. Bong never comes close to stumbling into this trap, largely because his devoted concentration extends to developing a fullness to the characters and honoring the reality in which they live. The relationships are artfully drawn, and they are all driven by consistent worldviews. Without resorting to emotional manipulation, Bong shows how little cruelties fester into spiritual cancers, both for the individuals blithely delivering them and those on the receiving end of the massed indignity. Bong and his co-screenwriter, Han Jin-won, give the actors sharp, nuanced scenarios to play, and the whole cast responds beautifully, with especially incisive work by Park So-dam, as the Kim daughter, and Bong regular Song Kang-ho, as the family patriarch.
Maybe the most important choice Bong makes is to bypass easy, simple choosing of sides and settling of scores in the narrative. There’s a satisfaction in structuring a story that way, but the truth is hollowed out. In real life, there are no clean victories. Parasite is highly imaginative, but it’s no fantasy.