Like his 2014 film Snowpiercer, director Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is concerned with the haves and the have-nots, and what happens when the two clash. In Snowpiercer, the stage was a steampunk train that circled an ice-covered globe. In Parasite, the setting is current-day Korea, mainly within the mansion of Mr. Park, a wealthy businessman, who lives there with his high-strung wife and two children, both a handful. It’s hard to tell which one feels more dystopian.
In Parasite, we are introduced to the family of Kim Ki-taek, played by Song Kang-Ho. He, along with his son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-shik), daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) and wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), live in extreme poverty. The chance for new money arrives when one of Ki-Woo’s more wealthy friends informs him of a job opening to tutor Min-hyuk, the daughter of Mr. Park.
Through cunning and careful planning, the entire family begins working for the rich family without them knowing that their new servants are related. Revealing any more about the plot would ruin what is one of the most tense, thought-provoking and unpredictable thrill rides of the year.
In terms of aesthetic construction, Parasite is flawless, with uneasy visuals that transform Mr. Park’s upper-class home into a twisting house of horrors, and the characters who inhabit it are brought to life by a top-notch ensemble cast. Song Kang-Ho is in fine form as the charismatic-yet-luckless Ki-taek. He must do the heaviest lifting in terms of both humor and pathos, and pulls both off brilliantly. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, particularly Cho Yeo-jong as Mr. Park’s wife. Going past the satirical trope of a high-strung wealthy woman obsessed with her dogs, in certain profound moments she reveals her inner complexities. In one key scene, she opens up to Chung-sook about a time she almost lost her son. For one fleeting moment, the two of them trade advice, woman to woman. Bong tips the scales of sympathy in Parasite constantly, forcing his audience to question who they are rooting for, and why.
This becomes doubly apparent when another lower-class family is thrown into the mix. Just like Kim’s clan, they are doing what they must to survive. This similarity is evident in Kim’s reaction when the other patriarch reminisces about a cake shop of his that went under, as one of Kim’s once did. It’s a reaction of sympathy and recognition, but ultimately gets his family into deep trouble. Parasite acknowledges that people have a lot in common, but in a system designed to keep them at each other’s throats, what they share ceases to matter. The film is a brilliant and bitter ode to the fact that people don’t want to work together: they want to get to the top, and they will become anyone to get there.