“If I had all this, I would be kinder.” So says Kim Ki-taek (played by Song Kang-ho), one of the main characters in the film Parasite, of his new employers’ home. It’s a modern mansion filled with burnished wood, polished glass, and every resource imaginable—the polar opposite of where Ki-taek lives with his family, a subterranean hovel that peers out onto a back alley in Seoul. To the Kims, the sparkling estate is like a promised land, only a few neighborhoods over from their home and yet completely out of reach.
Those two abodes are at the center of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, a loopily brilliant drama that might be the most thrilling film of the year—as well as the funniest and the most trenchant. Few filmmakers can manage such a dizzying blend of tones, but for Bong, one of South Korea’s finest directors, it’s a trademark. With Parasite he’s crafted his best movie yet, no easy accomplishment for the man behind genre-defining works such as Memories of Murder, The Host, and Snowpiercer, which helped bring Korean cinema to international audiences. Parasite, which unanimously won this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is the definition of a must-see experience.
As with many great films, the less you know about Parasite’s story (written by Bong and Han Jin-won), the better. Bong’s plots often seem to exist in a mode of perpetual, spontaneous creation, fizzing with new ideas and twisting in unexpected directions; Parasite is unusual in that it has only one big twist (Okja had at least a dozen). That approach speaks to the intimacy of this film, which is largely set in the aforementioned two residences—one belonging to the Kim family, who live in relative poverty, and the other to the Park family, whose stylish dwelling is like a walled city overflowing with high-tech creature comforts.
When Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), Ki-taek’s ambitious son who’s sick of folding pizza boxes for rent money, worms his way into a job as a tutor for the Parks, he embarks on a mission to spread the wealth. He brings the rest of his family, one by one, into the fancy Park compound, getting his dad hired as a driver, his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) brought in as a therapist, and his mom, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), installed as a maid. It’s all a subterfuge, and it’s all accomplished through tricks of privilege: knowing the right people, producing the right college diploma, and knowing when to be obsequiously deferential.
Once the entire Kim family is assembled within the Park household, things unsurprisingly start to spiral out of control, though because this is a Bong Joon Ho film, conflicts develop in a manner that’s hard to predict. Initially, Parasite seems like a Dickensian thriller of sorts, a black comedy of haves and have-nots doing silent battle. But one of Bong’s strengths is his love for every character he creates, even the comically uninformed Mrs. Park (Jo Yeo-jeong) and her snooty husband (Lee Sun-kyun). Everyone in the movie is something of a fool, which is just about the only thing that bonds them together.
As the plot of Parasite metamorphoses, the film becomes more of a bleak tale about how financial polarization and late-stage capitalism have made it literally impossible for people to understand each other across the class divide. Bong accomplishes that partly through his incisive script. But the insular setting of Parasite also lets the director experiment with searing imagery that uses human faces and simple household environments to create visions of hilarity as well as pure horror. One of the film’s pivotal moments revolves around a misunderstanding: One character mistakes another for something terrifying. Bong revels in showing viewers both sides of the encounter, one scary and the other sad, a microcosm of Parasite’s parable of division.
Bong has always been a political storyteller, in the sense that he knows any kind of story can be political. Memories of Murder is a taut, true-life whodunit, but it’s also a portrayal of how police investigations balance on a knife-edge of justice and corruption. The Host is a classic monster movie, but it delivers thrills while showing how so many modern cities fail their citizens. Okja is a fairy tale about one girl’s love for a magical pig, but it follows that narrative right into an industrial slaughterhouse. Parasite stands out for having less of an outré genre selling point, but that just makes its narrative swerve even more chilling. All the viewer knows is that Bong is telling a story about humans, which means it can be a perfect comedy until it becomes a tragedy.