“You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan at all,” muses Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) in Parasite, the latest film from Korean maestro Bong Joon-ho. It’s an apt sentiment: the movie is so full of wild energy it feels as if it could throw control to the winds and spin off the rails at any moment, but miraculously, it never does. Though not as tightly controlled or fully realized as last year’s Burning (directed by Lee Chang-dong and centering on similar subject matter), it’s a deft balancing act of a film – patient, intriguingly idiosyncratic, and often gripping.
A ferocious satire of socioeconomic inequality in South Korea, Parasite sets up a seemingly familiar arc before veering into thrillingly unpredictable territory. It opens with an opportunity for the unemployed Kim family to “move up in the world.” At the suggestion of a rich friend, son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) begins to tutor the daughter of the wealthy Park family, and quickly contrives to get the rest of his family hired by the Parks under false pretenses. As the Kims construct increasingly elaborate ruses to gain the Parks’ trust (without revealing that they are related to one another), the film begins to take on a darkly comic tone. The Kims are industrious, enterprising, amoral; the Parks are gullible, oblivious, self-absorbed. Despite the economic disparity between them, though, the two families are not so different. Neither is truly malicious, but both are fundamentally selfish, preoccupied with material conveniences and shallow satisfactions. Displaying a hideous crayon drawing, Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) proudly proclaims that her son is “an artist by nature.” (“It’s a chimpanzee, right?” Kim Ki-woo inquires; “It’s a self-portrait,” Mrs. Park corrects him.) Meanwhile, the Kims, eyes glued to their phones, obsessively search the nooks and crannies of their cramped apartment for the best place to get a Wi-Fi signal.
Through the dynamic that evolves between the two families, the meaning of the title, Parasite, soon becomes clear. The relationship between the Kims and the Parks is symbiotic, parasitic, and it goes both ways. The Kims are leeching off the Parks’ money, but the Parks are leeching off the Kims’ labor. The Kims are dependent on the Parks to sustain themselves financially; the Parks are dependent on the Kims to function. More than that, the two families become emotionally attached to one another. Kim Ki-woo is romantically intertwined with the daughter he is tutoring, Mrs. Park confides her son’s history of emotional trauma in Kim Ki-jeong (the daughter of the Kim family, posing as his art teacher), and Kim Ki-taek tries to become friends with Mr. Park.
Yet any attempts at real intimacy are doomed from the start, for the Kims are only able to be in the same room as the Parks by pretending to be other than they are. “Just fake it,” suggests Min, the friend who initially advises Kim Ki-woo to work for the Parks. Kim Ki-jeong keeps her job through hilariously transparent flattery, ad-libbing psychological mumbo-jumbo to convince Mrs. Park that her son is an artistic genius. (We learn that the son’s art teachers don’t usually last longer than a month – presumably because they tell the truth about his talents, or lack thereof.) “I don’t think of this as forgery or crime,” Kim Ki-woo tells his family, brandishing about the fake documents created by his sister for his job interview. He seems to believe that if he pretends hard enough, the ruse will become real and work backwards to justify the deception.
The Kims are not merely trying to become rich; they are trying to become like rich people. Kim Ki-woo slips right into the role of his friend, the daughter’s previous tutor and secret boyfriend; later, he even uses the exact same phrases to describe their relationship. Each member of the Kim family is filling a position in the Park household, and they must each displace the previous holder of that position to do so. Yet this is a Faustian bargain. To play these roles, they must cut off parts of themselves, starting with the basic familial love for one another that they must conceal to keep up the ruse. When threatened with discovery, they scatter out of sight – like cockroaches when a light turns on, as one character puts it. Because the Parks do not want to acknowledge the poor (Mr. Park dislikes people who “cross the line”), the Kims must conceal their poorness. Yet their schemes lead only to despair, for they are trying to deny what cannot, ultimately, be denied.
Kim Ki-taek’s attempts to connect with his employer on a human level are rebuffed; a child’s birthday party, which should be an occasion for the most simple joy, is to be treated as “work.” The relationship between the two families is mutually parasitic because they are closed off to the possibility of relating to one another as people. Instead, they are primarily concerned with what they can gain from each other.
When the Kims flee the Park residence, they go down, down, down several flights of stairs, and the layered geography of the film begins to take on allegorical dimensions. In Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, the hilltop mansion of the rich man is like heaven on earth, and the poor man looks up at it with jealousy and hatred from his place in the slums of hell. A similar device is at play in Parasite. One scarcely realizes just how grey and cheerless the Kims’ world is until the gate to the Park residence opens and reveals a glimpse of shocking, Edenic green – a place in the sun. (Kim Ki-woo marvels that the Parks are able to look at the sky from their own backyard.) The Parks live in a mansion on a hill, while the Kims live in a semi-basement, half underground, half above. They are between two worlds. If the Parks’ mansion is a kind of materialist heaven, their basement comes to symbolize the opposite extreme. The black portal of the doorway is like a sad parody of 2001’s black monolith; characters descend into it and discover no transcendence, only self-imposed imprisonment.
The film is full of sequences of drawn-out suspense to make Hitchcock proud, but it is at its best when there is no traditional tension, only a building unease that is all the more suffocating for how shapeless it is. Joon-ho builds and sustains an atmosphere in which it feels like something shocking and violent could (or inevitably will) erupt at any moment.
When the eruption does come, it feels appropriately senseless, but I’m not sure how I feel about the film’s lengthy denouement, which stumbles over itself to provide clear answers to mysteries that may have been better left ambiguous. Nevertheless, there are images and ideas of eerie, haunting power in the film’s epilogue. Everyone in Parasite is trapped in a neverending, Sisyphean hell of perpetual discontentment – and who can say whether the trap is a fate forced upon them or a fate they made for themselves?