Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” Turns Class Conflict Into a Tense Thriller

Oscar Kim Bauman, Living Arts Editor

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“Parasite,” the latest film by acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, has an air of mystery around it. The film, which premiered at Cannes this past May and opened in the United States last month, has been met with a rapturous critical reception, becoming the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or, the highest award at Cannes. Among those who have seen “Parasite,” the refrain “go in blind,” urging those who have yet to see the film to go in knowing nothing of the plot, has become common. 

Bong’s films, from “The Host” to “Snowpiercer” have always been hard to pin down to a single genre, and “Parasite” is no exception. While “Parasite” lacks the science fiction elements of the aforementioned films, it nevertheless incorporates moments of tender familial drama, of nail-biting thriller, laugh-out-loud comedy, and even edge-of-your-seat horror. To get it out of the way, “Parasite” is excellent, and comes with my highest recommendation. However, to discuss what exactly makes it that good requires delving deeper into the plot, so those who wish to go in blind should abandon this review now.

“Parasite” opens in a moment of desperation. Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) loses his free access to the WiFi network of a nearby cafe. Scrambling to find another unsecured network to use, the rest of his impoverished family scramble to all corners of their basement apartment. In this moment, the audience might think they have the title figured out; clearly the Kim clan are the titular parasites. But this complex narrative has only started to unfold.

The plot is kicked into gear when Ki-woo is visited by Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), an old friend of his. Explaining to Ki-woo that he is leaving Korea to study abroad, Min-hyuk suggests Ki-woo take over his current job, that of an English tutor to Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the teenage daughter of the wealthy Park family. There’s just one wrinkle: since Ki-woo didn’t go to college, he’ll have to falsify documents and certifications to get the job. 

From here, the Kim family finds themselves taking on greater depths of deception. After ingratiating himself among the Parks, and securing his own job, Ki-woo secures positions for the rest of his family. When Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) mentions needing an art tutor for her eccentric young son, Da-song, Ki-woo recommends an associate of his, a Korean American art therapist named Jessica, a false identity which is assumed by his savvy sister, Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). 

Following this, Ki-jeong and Ki-woo conspire to get their parents hired. In schemes as ingenious and clever as those one might expect from a small-scale “Mission Impossible,” the siblings dispose of the Park family’s chauffeur and long-time housekeeper, and get their parents, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, a frequent lead in Bong’s films) and Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) hired in their places. At this point, the Kim family feel secure in their place; they have risen from the basement to a hilltop mansion, and live adjacent to wealth, if not in wealth themselves. 

However, this scheme does not go unchallenged. The Kims, having brought themselves up through deception, struggle to keep up the ruse. Rather than ever feel comfort in their new luxurious surroundings, they act as if walking on a tightrope, making sure never to “cross the line” between rich and poor, something which Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) praises Ki-taek for. As the days and weeks pass, the illusion becomes harder to maintain. Ki-taek, the sternly prideful patriarch, holds back his anger as Mr. Park complains about the apparent smell of poor people. 

Eventually, this house of cards comes tumbling down at the worst possible moment. Family secrets come to light, and the already murky morality of the film becomes entirely opaque. While the film’s first act operates largely as an acidic class satire, its second and third acts ratchet up the tension into shades of thriller and even horror, as metaphors of economic violence take literal form.

While this review mostly focuses on the plot of “Parasite,” the film has even more to offer. Its production design is immaculate, strongly visualizing the different realms which the Park and Kim families inhabit. The score by Jeong Jae-il is moving, hitting the right note at every turn, bouncy in one moment, heart-thumping in another. The performances are nuanced and human on all fronts, at times leaving the viewer unsure as to who they ought to side with. 

“Parasite” is, in terms of scope, a “small” film. Its action takes place largely in two homes, the Kim apartment and the Park mansion. Its stakes, rather than the fate of the world, are the finances and well-being of two families. Yet Bong’s meticulous mastery of film form makes it feel grand, powerful, and important. “Parasite” is, from beginning to end, completely engrossing, a high minded social critique in the body of a fast-paced thriller, with not a single shot or line of dialogue wasted.