Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Neon releases the film on Friday, October 11.
Bong Joon Ho, the sui generis South Korean auteur behind unclassifiable modern wonders like “Barking Dogs Never Bite” and “The Host,” has always made films that refuse to fit the narrow parameters of any particular genre. Each of them is built atop a bedrock of comic violence that Bong uses to support the weight of the heavy stories he places on top of it, but simply categorizing “Snowpiercer” as science-fiction or “Memories of Murder” as a mystery would require you to ignore the rare magic that holds them together, and deny the controlled instability that allows them to keep changing shape before your eyes.
The director refers to his furious and fiendishly well-crafted new film as a “family tragicomedy,” but the best thing about “Parasite” is that it gives us permission to stop trying to sort his movies into any sort of pre-existing taxonomy — with “Parasite,” Bong finally becomes a genre unto himself. Ditching the sci-fi elements that have defined his recent work in favor of a more grounded (but no less eccentric) story of life under the pall of late capitalism, Bong’s latest offers another compassionate parable about how society can only be as strong as its most vulnerable people.
The difference with this tender shiv of a movie is that it doesn’t rely on its metaphors, or even let them survive; on the contrary, it attacks them with a wide variety of household objects until it becomes clear just how possible all of “Parasite” really is. As heightened as “Okja,” but as realistic as “Mother,” it proves once and for all that with Bong Joon-ho — as with the hyper-stratified systems that he invariably depicts — the more things change, the more they stay the same. And the more his films transform — over the course of an act, a scene, or sometimes even a single shot — the more holistic they become.
“Parasite” begins with its most nakedly relatable moment of leeching, as the members of a poor Seoul family scurry around their squalid, basement-level apartment looking for a few bars of free wi-fi. It seems like one of the local businesses, sick of having their network slowed down by a bunch of freeloaders, finally got around to installing a password. So it goes. “Hold your phones high!” yells good-natured patriarch Ki-taek (the brilliant Song Kang-ho), as if he hasn’t been rendered obsolete because of his complete lack of technological know-how. But his college-age son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) both dutifully heed their father’s advice, because their dad has been around the block a few times and they respect his life experience. Chung-soon (Chang Hyae-jin), Ki-taek’s wife, focuses the brunt of her energy on folding the massive stacks of flat pizza boxes that are piled in their grimy kitchen — the pittance a local restaurant pays them for that service has become the family’s only source of outcome.
But, as with all of the protagonists in Bong’s films, these people are smart and proud and resourceful; in a nod to Bae Doo-na’s character from “The Host,” Chung-soon even has an impressive background in esoteric sports. The problem is that they’ve been screwed by a system that doesn’t have any mercy for those who slip down the ladder, and now they live in a cement box with no door. So when Ki-jung’s handsome, higher-class friend moves to America and asks him to take over his job tutoring the teenage daughter of a nouveau riche businessman, the underqualified Ki-jung jumps at the chance.
His artful sister forges up some documents, and the next thing he knows he’s standing in the foyer of a spacious granite mansion somewhere in the hills above the city. The place — a marvel of set design that Bong’s team constructed with all the care with which he writes his characters — is a sleek masterpiece of smooth rock and clear glass; it’s wide open, but it also harbors plenty of great hiding spots. It’s a fine home for the obliviously affluent Park family, even if the sweet but daffy Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) and her longtime housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) are the only ones there to look after the kids. And both of them definitely need looking after. Da-hye (Jung Ziso) is a horny student who treats her tutors as indentured make-out partners, while little Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) is a hyper-active kid with some real trauma and a nascent artistic streak that his mom likens to Basquiat with a straight face; “Parasite,” like all of Bong’s films, is laugh-out-loud funny until the moment it’s not.
Lucky for the Park family, Ki-woo happens to be related to someone who could look the part of an art teacher — of course, he and his sister pretend not to know each other when she shows up for her interview. It isn’t long before Ki-jung schemes to have Mr. Park’s driver fired, creating another open position. The housekeeper is the only obstacle left at that point; once Chung-sook has replaced her, one family will have completely latched onto another and feeding off their financial assistance (as well as the food in their well-stocked refrigerator full of Voss water, which might be life’s most succinct expression of empty wealth).
One family lives above the hills, and the other lives below a flood zone; if “Snowpiercer” was a socioeconomic hierarchy knocked sideways, “Parasite” stacks the classes up again in a way that stretches from the sewers to the sky, and all sorts of hidden pockets in between. This movie doesn’t hinge on major plot twists, per se, but the cleverness of its structure only takes shape as one clan gets more comfortable living off another, and the top and bottom rungs of the financial ladder start meeting in the same place.
Thanks to cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, whose camera juts through the Park home like the bones of a skeleton, Bong’s reliably clever and multi-plane compositions make that house feel like the blueprints of a world that’s diced up by an invisible social contract. When Mr. Park heaps praise on his new driver for not “crossing the line,” you can almost see the divide he’s talking about. Few movies have so viscerally traced how certain jobs cause the rift between tax brackets to collapse. Ki-woo and his family share a space with the Parks, but they occupy a different reality; they (and their film) spend most of their time in that mansion, but you can feel them navigating around their employers’ lives with surgical precision. Of course, cut deep enough, and those careful boundaries start to bleed. This being a Bong Joon-ho movie, that blood eventually comes out in huge splashes, and it seeps into some very unexpected places.
Giddy one moment, unbearably tense the next, and always so entertaining and fine-tuned that you don’t even notice when it’s changing gears, “Parasite” takes all of the beats you expect to find in a Bong film and shrinks them down with clockwork precision. The movie doesn’t feel smaller than the globe-trotting “Okja,” only more constricted. It’s a magic trick that Bong is able to pull off because he’s able to carve an entire breathless setpiece from a single wooden table. There’s nothing in “Parasite” as epic as the opening attack in “The Host,” but the film contains a number of inspired sequences that pulse with the same, chaotic, morally relative madness of Bong’s signature moments; one is underwater, one is on stone, one is on grass.
Exciting as they are, all of them produce a heart-in-your-throat queasiness that comes with not knowing who deserves to survive. Bong has a profound empathy for Ki-woo’s family, but his plot hinges on the damage their economic aspirations have on the people they displace; in order to move up in this world, someone else has to be brought down. Likewise, the Park family is never portrayed as explicitly “bad,” even if their money has made them a little dumb and desensitized.
Eschewing didacticism, “Parasite” takes the complicated feelings that indentured workers have for their employers and conducts it into a veritable symphony of respect and contempt. It’s not sustainable, but when it all breaks down it can just start over at the top of the cycle — the more things change, the more they stay the same. There’s a reason why Bong’s films usually end by restoring some version of the status quo, albeit with a hole in the middle (think of Song Kang-ho and his adopted son on the ice in “The Host”).
By the same token, there’s a reason why “Parasite” feels like his most crestfallen movie to date, and also his angriest. If the third act becomes a touch anticlimactic for how fast Bong stitches up some fresh wounds in order to race towards his ending, that feeling is redeemed by a massively powerful last shot that puts all of the director’s work in perspective. Unlike his previous movies, which all had more readily available precedents, the hyper-kinetic anguish here only relates back to his previous movies. It clarifies a shared dream of co-existence, and the closer his characters come to making that dream a reality, the more devastating it is when everything goes off the rails or crashes down on itself.
As cute as it is that the title of “Parasite” offers a winking response to “The Host,” it’s impossible to imagine that Bong will ever have reason to make a movie called “Symbiosis.” The impotent rage he feels about that spills into every frame of this incredible film, and leaves us all a little richer as a result.
“Parasite” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. NEON will release it in theaters later this year.