starring Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik
screenplay by Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won
directed by Bong Joon-ho
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) has a plan. He lives with his family at the end of an alley on the bottom-level of a tri-level apartment building--meaning they're halfway underground and the drunks have a tendency to pee right outside their windows. Ki-woo's dad, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), insists on leaving the windows open anyway. He likes the fresh air. Ki-woo's buddy Min (Park Seo-joon), a University kid as smooth as Ki-woo is rumpled, gives the family a large, decorative river rock mounted on a base. You know, for luck. He also gives Ki-woo a reference for a gig as an English tutor to a rich girl, Da-hye (Jung Ziso), whose neurotic mom, Mrs. Park (Jo Yeo-jeong), is desperate to maintain her own household's equilibrium, such as it is. Most of that involves managing Da-hye and Da-hye's hyperactive little brother, Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun), who, between pretending to be a Native American launching plastic arrows at housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun), does the usual things a hyperactive little kid does. His mom thinks he's a genius, but she worries about that thing that happened to him in first grade when they found him catatonic and foaming at the mouth. "When they're that age, you have fifteen minutes," she says. She's never been the same. Ki-woo, meanwhile, is sick of living in poverty--his entire family is out of work in a brutal economy. His plan is that once he's inculcated himself into the Park family household, he's going to get the rest of his family jobs there, too.
One stormy night when the Parks are away on a camping trip, Ki-woo's family have a little party at the mansion that involves pretending they're the lords of the manor. Ki-taek is proud of his son. They're all pleased by what they've accomplished. Ki-taek marvels at how much money is transferring from the Park household to theirs. And then comes a knock at the door. Bong Joon-ho is one of the brightest lights of the "movie brat" generation of South Korean filmmakers. He and Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, Kim Jee-woon, and Na Hong-jin carry on from the old guard of Hong Sang-soo, Im Kwon-taek, and Im Sang-soo, transforming a venerable and celebrated industry into something as feral and dangerous as it is technically marvellous. They exist at a junction between the Technicolor luxury of Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers and Steven Spielberg and their films are the least "foreign" foreign artifacts for western audiences. Bong's Memories of Murder is the best non-Zodiac police procedural of the last twenty years; his The Host revived the kaiju genre years before the current Godzilla mini-bloom; and always along the way he's had this obsessive interest in the family unit--the ties that bind and the ways they tear asunder. Frequent collaborator Song has become a superstar at about the same pace as Bong, a distinctive face of Korean cinema and a classic Everyman with astonishing depth and range. He appears the foil but is not entirely capable of disguising his pain and intelligence. When his Ki-taek tells Ki-woo he's proud of him, Bong shoots him from down a long hallway, undercutting an emotional moment with the distance of the characters' essential inauthenticity. Later, when Ki-taek is trying to save artifacts from being swallowed by another of his bad choices, we see exactly how much he understands that all of this might be his fault.
The erosion of Ki-taek's cheerful fatalism and astonishment at the inspired deviance of his children is the heart of Parasite. It starts when they overhear Mr. Park talking about how glad he is that his new driver (Ki-taek) respects personal boundaries, but is bothered that he smells like "someone who rides the subway." And it ends with an impromptu garden party, at which Mr. Park asks Ki-taek to do something really humiliating and goes from gentle cajoling to a steely "you're getting paid for this." Anyone who's ever worked for a rich person has had this moment where their humiliation can be bought at a price. It would be rare, in fact, if it were a one-time purchase. Parasite goes from Shoplifters to Get Out to Sorry to Bother You in a breakneck way so unsettling you don't notice it happening. The dreaded knock on the door interrupting the family's day-long drunk is followed by the expected news that the Parks have given up camping for the night and are on their way home. The ensuing choreographed slapstick scramble is a wonder somehow upstaged by Bong's social observation; the Parks, in what they think is a private moment, are acting out a sex fantasy where they pretend to be poor druggie wastoids when suddenly Mr. Park pauses, sniffs the air, and wonders why he can smell his driver in his home. Earlier, little traumatized Da-song declares that all of his family's new domestics smell the same. By the end, when Mrs. Park rolls down her window in the backseat, the rage boiling behind Ki-taek's once-quiescent brow begins to bubble over.
Parasite is about how the rich perceive the poor to be parasitic when, in fact, it's the rich who profit from their hosts without any sort of compensatory benefit for the host. The rich eat the poor. They suck everything that's good from society and contribute almost nothing in return. They will continue eating until society dies. They become solipsistic and strange, incapable of empathizing with 99% of everybody. I thought about how that idiot Howard Schultz, Starbucks founder, didn't know how much a box of cereal costs and proposed a presidential run based on the idea that rich people should keep all of their money because they made it without the help of the tens of thousands of underlings killing themselves for a pittance on his behalf. Mr. Park wants a line drawn between himself and the help. He doesn't want to smell them, and when he fucks his wife, to feel extra dirty, he pretends to be one of them. Everything can be bought for the Parks, so all of their relationships are transactional. When Parasite paints portraits of genuine dependency and privation, it's brutal in its devotion. The fight for scraps is a fight to the death. "I guess you call it love," Ki-taek says to Mr. Park, needling at whatever it is the Parks feel for one another, coming to the understanding after all of it that the rich don't actually feel anything the same way, though they use the same names. Parasite is scenes from the class struggle in the twenty-first century. At the end, Ki-woo has a new plan. It involves a good education, a high-paying job, and an if not mythical, at least highly unlikely, ascendance up the social ladder. The film closes on his face. He's hopeful it'll work out. We like Ki-woo. Even though he's a fucking idiot.