Film Review: “Parasite”

Just a week ago, I would have assumed Jordan Peele’s Us would go down as the year’s most effective example of comedy and horror fused into a statement picture about the eternal chasm between the haves and have-nots. Not anymore.

With Parasite, the South Korean mad genius Boon Joon-ho has released a satire so funny, so savage and so necessary in our present moment of global unrest and anxiety that it makes Luis Bunuel’s bourgeois vivisections look almost tame. Think pieces will be written about popular culture’s response to this young century’s grift, class envy and income inequality. Many will lead with Parasite.

Parasite offers a tale of two nuclear families of contrasting means. The unemployed Kims, whose story we follow from the beginning, live in a dirty tenement overrun by stinkbugs, and making a pittance by folding pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant. One day, the family’s college-age son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) receives an offer that will change their trajectory: to fill in as a tutor for the daughter of the affluent Park family.

The Parks, whose patriarch is an international starchitect, reside in a sleek, glass-walled home on the other side of town—a massive engineering marvel designed from scratch by the film’s production designer, Lee Ha Jun. On his first day on the job, Ki-woo discovers that the family’s young son, the spoiled and hyperactive Da-Song (Jung Hyun-joon), is a budding artist, and it just so happens he knows a great art instructor for the young “Basquiat”—a professional who can foster his genius. That he happens to be speaking of his sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) is the Kim family’s secret.

And so it begins: One by one, the Kims ingratiate themselves into the lives of these naïve rich folks, in what might be the slowest-progressing home-invasion film in the genre’s history. And if that means they must find creative ways to relieve the Parks’ dedicated driver and housekeeper and usurp those positions for themselves, then so be it.

As P.T. Barnum supposedly said, there’s a sucker born every minute, and at first, your sympathies may lie with the con artists, who learn quickly how to butter up their marks with what they want to hear—especially the mother, Chung-sook Park (Jang Hye-jin), whose gullibility is boundless. Good on the proles, the populists might say, for squeezing the equivalent of pocket change out of this obscenely wealthy family for shams like “art therapy” for the little brat, and tutoring time-turned-makeout sessions with the elder daughter.

But when does this opportunism (d)evolve into cruelty? That line may be different for each viewer, but Bong Joon-ho will eventually cross it for everyone, as the Kims resort to ever-darker means to preserve their carefully calibrated fiction. Especially after they discover another, quite literal, underclass that threatens to reveal their secret.

Bong has said that his film is a “comedy without clowns, and a tragedy without villains.” Indeed, his refusal to demonize or caricature anybody renders the movie’s pathos so powerful. There are relatable moments all around, from both families: the Park parents squeezing in a carnal reprieve from their son’s demanding behavior; the Kims scrambling around their home, searching like addicts for the clearest Wi-Fi signal for them to leach off. It’s a fine laugh line when Chung-sook explains the portions of high-end dog food she feeds the family’s three pampered pooches; then again, I too only settle for pretentious blends.

Parasite has a great deal to say about a range of other topics, too: globalization, American cultural appropriation, and the nuclear threat from North Korea that, while ever-present, has become the stuff of mordant humor in the liberated South.

But it’s the moments of casual malice, whether delivered from the bubble of privilege, in the Parks’ case, or by the need to feel superior to anyone else, in the Kims’ case, that condemn both sides. The Kim family sees no problem humiliating a homeless man who pisses outside of their building, the same building that will soon be flooded, leaving the Kims to spend the night in a gymnasium with thousands of others, their belongings destroyed. Back at the manse, the Parks speak flippantly about how wonderful the rains have been for their garden, going so far as to call them “a blessing,” with nary a thought for the lives ruined just a few towns away.

It’s not that the individuals themselves are horrible people: We’ve done things, or said things, or thought things, like this. It’s the gulf itself between these two flawed groups—deep, widening and unbridgeable—that’s the problem.

“Parasite” is now playing at local theaters, including Cinemark Palace and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, and Movies of Lake Worth.