Twice in Bong Joon-ho’s acid black comedy Parasite (which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), characters exclaim “That’s a metaphor!” about something they’re looking at — which I took to be Bong poking fun at himself, as if Wes Anderson’s characters were to announce that they live in a big dollhouse or Quentin Tarantino’s that their existence is a masturbatory farrago of trash-movie tropes. The South Korean director thinks in metaphor. It’s his métier. Consider the first shot of Parasite (the title itself is a metaphor): what looks to be an empty birdcage draped with socks in front of a window that’s partially below street level. In this apartment, all dreams of flight have been extinguished (the socks reinforce the connection to the dirt), while the low vantage signals exclusion — a mocking one when the residents, the miserably destitute Kim family, have their view blocked by a drunken yuppie pissing against a wall. Stuck underground, the Kims — father, mother, teenage son, and 20-ish daughter — writhe over the depths to which they’ve sunk, over their lack of connection. (They press against the ceiling to try to get a Wi-Fi signal.) They desperately need to attach themselves to something high off the ground. They long for airier metaphors.
The premise of Parasite is that the Kims, with guile and wiles, manage to insinuate themselves into the household of the wealthy Park family. The deception begins when a pal of the teenage son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), heads abroad and prevails on him to take over as tutor for the Parks’ daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). Though Ki-woo isn’t even in college, the subterfuge is easy; the pampered Parks are exquisitely gullible. When the younger Park boy, who suffers from a version of PTSD that turns out to have a strong metaphorical component, requires a therapist to work with him on art projects, Ki-woo puts the family in touch with his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), though, to allay suspicions, he doesn’t identify her as such. In short order, Ki-jung frames the Park chauffeur to get him fired, after which Ki-woo suggests their father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), as a replacement, though he doesn’t identify him as such; and soon they hoodwink the Parks into jettisoning their longtime housekeeper and hiring the Kim matriarch, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), though she’s not identified as such. In the gated Park manse — above the street, surrounded by trees, serenaded by birds — the incognito Kims feel affluent. When the Parks go on a camping trip, the Kims move in and savor the luxury and peace. They think they’re a natural fit.
The first half of Parasite goes down easily — maybe too easily. The Kims’ successes are too pat for suspense (is Ki-jung really that sensitive an art therapist out of the gate?), and Bong’s frames are over-controlled. It seems like a one-joke movie. But then the bottom falls out of the joke (metaphorically and literally), and the tragedy of this jury-rigged society manifests itself in rage and blood.
It turns out — this could be construed as a spoiler, but it cracks the movie open and needs to be reckoned with — that there are people even lower than the Kims, people whose existence is entirely subterranean, who stink worse of mildew and excrement, whom the Kims must now keep down the way others have kept them down. By then, Bong has left social realism far behind and moved into horror-movie territory, into haunted houses, buried secrets, pop-up skeletons. As the tension builds, he veers into farce; the film’s centerpiece is a marvel of split-second timing in which every prop — an illuminated tent on the lawn, a walkie-talkie, a flickering lightbulb — resonates like mad. The masterstroke? The sequence ends in melancholy, as Kim Sr. realizes (while hiding under a sofa, inches from discovery) that he was never as omnipotent as he thought. The Parks have been nice to him, his wife, and his children, but they can afford to be.
You could never call Bong subtle. After a symbolic rain causes the symbolic sewers to overflow and symbolically flood the Kims’ symbolic basement apartment, Kim Sr. is forced to perform at the Parks’ fancy house party in a symbolic Native American headdress. The climax, though surprising in its splatter quotient, is telegraphed.
What keeps you rapt in Parasite is the visual wit — every shot distills the movie’s themes — and the richness of the characters and performances: Song’s stricken expression as Kim Sr. is driven to murder by class resentment, Lee Jeong-eun’s swift transformation from a calmly efficient housekeeper to a keening madwoman, and Choi’s eloquent helplessness as his teenage protagonist watches this new world order gorily combust. Bong has a gift for creating believably interdependent families, each its own ecosystem. The temptation must have been strong to make the wealthy Parks cartoons of privilege, but they’re actually likable. Jo Yeo-jeong’s mother is a wispy, fragile beauty who’s in over her head amid the opulence, while Lee Sun-kyun’s Park Sr. is the perfect capitalist cover boy, trim and focused in all things. He does not have peripheral vision, but he doesn’t need it to thrive in his world. You could say he functions better without it.
At the heart of Parasite is the most gnawing evolutionary fear of all, the inability to protect one’s family. Parents work to save their children but lose them, as children lose their parents and wives their husbands. The bonds are firm but can withstand only so much pressure before they fracture. Who are the real parasites? The poor who attach themselves to the rich or the rich who suck the marrow of the poor? Or is the system itself the parasite, drawing its energy from the turbulent interaction between rich and poor? As in Jordan Peele’s even more outlandish Us, the central metaphor eats into the mind. We are feeding on each other. Comeuppance comes up from below.
*A version of this article appears in the October 14, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!