Revolving around the family of Ki-taek, which includes his wife and their son and daughter, Parasite paints a bleak picture of Seoul as seen from the perspective of an underprivileged family, of which no member has a steady job. Their gaze extends out onto the city literally from far below street level, in a motif that contrasts with the second family to feature in the film – the Parks – and their multi-level mansion. Jobs, much like an open WiFi connection in the apartment, are hard to come by and the family has to band together in an unconventional team effort to make money folding pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant. The Parks, on the other hand, are portrayed as wealthy but inert, if at least not dumb or vicious. Every last need they have is catered for, from a maid to a driver to private teachers for the kids. Lines do get blurry later on in the film, in which Ki-taek’s family will discover just how twisted their cunning survival instinct can become, and the Parks get to test the extent of their class prejudice in neat, rewarding ways.
Very much a thriller, and an excellent one at that, while also featuring a robust amount of situational comedy, this is still Bong framing the gripping, time-ticking elements of the story through a prism of social analysis, like in the best of his previous works. He delivers a solid, cohesive piece of filmmaking in which visual flourishes – the usual dynamism of his camerawork is in full bloom here, milking the architectural complexity of the Park mansion for all it’s worth – always exist in service of a tightly woven plot. He commands varied, symphonic performances from an ensemble led by his true avatar Song Kang-ho, allowing each member of both families to alternatively soar and fall in stature, moral standing, and ultimately tragic resonance.
A far cry from the rotund, mellow positivity of Okja, Parasite has the sharp, cold edges of a designer table. No good deed goes unpunished here, with each family group (there are several, hidden inside each other’s space like a monstrous Russian doll) finding out just how much “a good plan” can be tainted by cruelty. Parasite’s Seoul – as a stand-in for Korean society and its social inequality – is a city internalized, only a place in the sense that it allows individuals to move from Point A to Point B, from rags to riches. A race to the new frontier of a better living room, while everything else, from the lower-class neighborhoods to the revenants resurfacing from the underground, is swept up by a dark flooding.
If not Bong’s best film to date, Parasite certainly appears to be the most compact and impeccable, a machine of brutal efficiency with no loose parts in sight. It’s a testament to the director’s talent that it still manages to retain a sense of pathos and heartfelt care for its characters.