Parasite is probably one of the most deceptive films in theaters this year, but not because it looks like one thing and proves to be another. Rather, it is exactly what it looks like, and yet also isn’t, like Wittgenstein’s rabbit-duck. Revealing its basic premise won’t spoil it or damage the diverse twists and turns it takes, but trying to describe the actual events or characterizations would be to ruin the poetic, hilarious, horrifying film that director Bong Joon-ho has given us.
Therefore, at its barest bones: Parasite deals with a poverty-stricken family headed by Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), his wife, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), who live together in a semi-basement apartment, where they make a meager living folding pizza boxes for a local chain. Ki-woo’s friend Min (Park Seo-joon) offers him an opportunity—take over Min’s job tutoring Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), a high school student and daughter of the wealthy Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) in order to keep her away from the dangerous frat boys of the local college. Ki-woo accepts the job, and things spiral outward from there, as the Kim family becomes further enmeshed with the Parks.
Parasite’s twists and occasional shocks feed into a narrative about class hierarchy and the smaller, more insidious elements that separate the classes. At first, the Kims and the Parks are painted with broad strokes, the Kims as a family of intelligent con-people, the Parks as stupid and out-of-touch rich people. The result is often comedy: the Kims’ machinations are not particularly sinister, treated instead with a combination of lightness and complex morality. The film doesn’t exactly ally itself with the Kims. They’re not villains, but their choices are also not exactly honest, and while the Parks are not bad people, they are also not self-aware or particularly intelligent ones. The general lack of backstory further heightens the moral complexity—Ki-taek’s disappointments in life are briefly referenced, as is Chung-sook’s Olympian past, but the film avoids attempting to justify (or not) its characters’ behaviors based upon that. What is clear is that the Kims are intelligent and talented, and that the Parks are not, effectively skewering any argument for a capitalist meritocracy.
But Parasite is not a simplistic view of the class conflict that permits of easy or satisfying solutions. The conflict within the lower classes, and the way in which they’re pitted against each other, is also treated of in the film’s most striking scenes. In this, Parasite is a far more complex treatment of similar topics to those broached in Snowpiercer. Parasite needs no dystopian future to interrogate class structure—it is firmly embedded in the here and now. The film opens with the Kims trying to get a wifi signal, which they’re stealing from their neighbor; later, phones, and their multitudinous uses, figure into the plot in marked ways. Access to phones, information, and technology leads to power, but it is a complex and multifaceted kind of power, one that can change lives in an instant.
There is so much complexity, visually and thematically, contained in Parasite that it’s nearly impossible to distill in a single review, especially in trying to avoid spoilers. This is also its strength—the film itself is deceptive, in what it convinces the viewer it’s about, in what it proves to be about, and in the way it moves among its themes and characterizations with a fluidity that masks the brilliance of its structure. Bong Joon-ho folds in humor with pathos, deception with apparent clarity, seeing both the humor in the situations and the underlying horror in them. Yet there’s never a sense of whiplash, nor a sudden shift in tone. Parasite remains a single, fluid narrative, so well-structured and well-characterized that the viewer doesn’t realize what’s going to happen until it does.
By turns hilarious, harrowing, and horrifying, Parasite may well be Bong Joon-ho’s best film since Memories of Murder. Like that film, the story is about perspective, moral complexity, less about the solution than how we get there. But Parasite is also more sharply satirical, and even nastier, in its own way. Don’t read too much about it before going in, for Parasite will stay with you, long after it ends.