It is no coincidence that the impoverished neighborhood that Kim’s family lives in is technically a basement. Theirs is a family barely scraping by, subsisting on a crappy job folding pizza boxes for which they rarely get paid in full. They crouch in the corner of their bathroom in order to use the Wi-fi of a nearby coffee shop. And they constantly have to deal with the local drunk pissing by their window. Life, for them, is a daily struggle.
Then, Kim’s son, Park, gets a blessing. By forging a diploma from Oxford, he manages to infiltrate the house of a rich family in order to teach their daughter English. What follows afterwards is far too enjoyable, and enjoyably twisted, to spoil. It isn’t particularly easy writing about “Parasite” without spoiling it, as much of the movie’s joys comes from Joon-ho’s ability to orchestrate shocking reveals and twist the knife further into the audience’s belly.
Bong Joon-ho, at this point, might be South Korea’s most celebrated director, a distinctive feat when looking at the country’s vast array of fantastic genre directors. After directing crowd-pleasers like “The Host” and “Okja,” alongside darker, more complicated fare like “Snowpiercer” and “Memories of Murder,” Joon-ho takes his gifts for spectacle and tones them down into what basically constitutes the most deadly game of hide and seek ever put to screen. It often takes the form of a slasher film, and may have been just as intense if it weren’t so funny. Joon-ho has always had a gift for balancing genre thrills with unexpected comedy, and that gift is ever present here.
Joon-ho also continues Korea’s tradition of balancing the crowd pleasing elements of genre filmmaking with scathing social commentary, this time with the Korean class system. While “Snowpiercer” represented the wealth gap visually by showing a literalized version of it on a lateral field (that being a train), “Parasite” represents it on a vertical field. The Kims live below ground, while the rich family, the Parks, live right above it. When inclement weather hits, the Kims’ entire livelihood is destroyed. When the Parks experience that same weather, it becomes an opportunity for their kids to play in the rain. This physical depiction of class difference is an effective wakeup call. By visualizing what was once invisible, the audience is suddenly able to see the wealth inequality in a way that feels brutally immediate.
However, the real gut punch of the film comes at the end. Without giving too much away, “Parasite” becomes a very different film in its coda. Becoming surprisingly melancholy after a thrilling and funny yarn, “Parasite” holds its biggest emotional impact for the very end. When the class differences become so all encompassing that there doesn’t seem to be any way out, the best thing that those affected by it can do is to retreat into fantasy. It is that hope, that tantalizing ideal that seems just out of reach, that keeps people going while, ironically, keeping those very class systems in place. All of the characters in this film exhibit parasitic behavior, but the biggest parasite is the system the Kims live under. It sucks them dry until all they have left is their fantasies.