The Korean director who first gained global fame with his wry creature feature “The Host” reconsiders that host-parasite relationship with his latest, “Parasite.”
Bong Joon Ho has a created a dark satire of haves and enterprising have-nots, a film that begins as a delightful “Big Con” comedy and probes deeper and turns more politically pointed — and more violent — the further it goes along.
Most cleverly, this skewering of global inequality and class warfare, at least as it pertains to his home peninsula, leaves unanswered the big question of an era when wealth has been callously and mercilessly redistributed upward to a rapacious few.
That question is, “Who will be first against the wall when the revolution comes?”
Bong’s muse, the hulking comic Song Kang-ho, plays the unemployed and broke patriarch of a family of four on the bottom rung of Seoul society — literally. They live in a smelly basement apartment where they’ve lost cell service, and on the evening we meet them, their free source of wi-fi — a neighbor — has just password-protected his router.
With his wife, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and two enterprising college age kids, Ki-jung (Park So-dam) ) and Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), father Ki-taek folds pizza delivery boxes, the lone hustle they have that pays in this economy. And Youtube tutorials or not, they can’t even do that right.
How will they cling to this dump, where the toilet sits up on an interior ledge next to the window drunken bums pee on every night? Everybody wonders what Ki-taek’s “plan” is. Dad is big on “What’s your plan?”
A windfall that he hasn’t planned for is their lifeline, it turns out. Ki-woo’s buddy, headed off to study abroad, recommends him as replacement for the rich teen girl he’s been tutoring. Sister Ki-jung forges Ki-woo some ace credentials as “Kevin,” which win over the girl (Jung Ji-so) and her frazzled, pampered mother (Jo Yeo-jeong).
And all a “Parasite” needs, we see, if that first foot in the door. “Kevin” is quick to recommend “a friend of a cousin” who studied in Illinois as an art tutor to the ADHD artist child in the house. “Jessica” is the name Ki-jung goes by. Sizing the kid and his mother’s worries up, she improvises “art therapist” into her resume as well.
This scrawled, dark corner in all of little Da-song’s drawings? That’s “the schizophrenia zone,” she says, freaking Mom out. That ability to lie on the fly is a family gift, and it’s what puts all four of the Kims in the employ of the Parks, by hook or by crook.
This 2019 Cannes Palme d’Or winner has fake tutors straight out of Shakespeare (“The Taming of the Shrew”). But I’d be surprised if Bong Joon ho didn’t see 2018’s Japanese Cannes Film Festival entry “Shoplifters,” and wasn’t inspired to whip up a funnier and more ambitious take on an underworld of low-rent grifters struggling to survive in the Golden Age of Income Inequality.
But here, there’s sympathy and even a modicum respect for their “marks.” In an economy where jobs are scarce and survival precarious, the Kims are grateful to have the jobs they finagle (and lie and cheat) their way into.
Ki-jung seems to be the most ruthless and cunning one, taking after her pitiless mother. Ki-jung is the one who surmises that the family driver can be unseated, and lets her folks know (in Korean, with English subtitles) “I set my trap in the Benz,” the family limo, a trap that will get that driver canned.
All these amusing machinations are just the table-setting for the confrontations to come. It turns out, the Kims aren’t the only ones desperate enough to prey on people like the Parks. And as they hustle them and deal with petty humiliations and bourgeois snobbery, they start to wonder, and make us wonder, just who is the host and who is the real parasite here?
Song Kang-ho has an oafish soulfulness that his director has tapped into, in film after film. He can let us feel pity for a character and laugh at him (a little) at the same time.
The laughs don’t dry up as things take a bloodier turn, but rather devolve into class warfare giggles. We know we should be shrinking from the mayhem, not chuckling. And yet, as in a horror movie where we figure “They have it coming,” we can’t help ourselves.
There’s something of a Great Leap Forward in Bong Joon Ho’s ambitions and skill at realizing them here, something that his failed Netflix satire “Ojkja” and the over-reaching sci-fi “Snowpiercer” couldn’t manage.
With “Parasite” he transcends genre even as he sharpens his social satire skills, delivering a movie that will resonate from Seoul to Syracuse, Helsinki to Hong Kong, one of the great films of 2019.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence and sexual content
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Park So-dam, Jo Yeo-Jeong, Lee Sun-kyun, Choi Woo-sik, Jang Hye-jin, Lee Jeong-eun, Jung Ji-so
Credits: Written and directed by Bong Joon Ho, co-written by Han Jin Won. A Neon release.
Running time: 2:12