Parasite: Notes from the Underground

<i>Parasite:</i> Notes from the Underground

For a film that ultimately delivers such an outraged, sorrowful, and incisive message about class inequity and the humanity-crushing mechanisms needed to maintain it, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) begins with surprising levity, with a twist on a classic heist. The plot is set in motion by a tiny ruse—on the misleading recommendation of a college-student friend, Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) gets himself hired as an English tutor for Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the teenage daughter of a well-heeled family—that snowballs into a daring swindle. Although early in the film we see Ki‑woo beg unsuccessfully for a part-time job at a pizzeria, his (forged) degree and nom de guerre, Kevin, make him not just worthy but above suspicion in the Parks’ rarefied Seoul neighborhood.

When Ki-woo first arrives at the Parks’ urban estate—its expansive, verdant yard a shocking oasis within ultradense Seoul—he is uninitiated enough in the customs of the jet set to mistake the uniformed housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung Eun), for the lady of the house. He recovers quickly. Ki-woo’s performance of affluence and exclusivity—which, as much as the English lessons, is what Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo Jeong) is paying for—soon rivals in sneaky mischief the “chain of recommendations” that follows. Ki-woo gets his younger sister, Ki‑jung (Park So Dam), seemingly just out of high school, appointed as an art therapist for the Parks’ young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon Jun), by passing her off as an acquaintance named Jessica and credentialing her with an American education. The Kim siblings then scheme to oust the Parks’ driver and housekeeper and replace them with their father (Song Kang Ho) and mother (Chang Hyae Jin), both posing as strangers to each other and to their children under the Parks’ roof.

Ki-woo and Ki-jung’s flawless pantomime of prestige is pure genre pleasure, as is the Kims’ masterful manipulation of the Parks’ anxieties about the employees on whom they depend. The wealthy family, so fearful about hiring the wrong people, couldn’t have hired wronger people. But unlike, say, Danny Ocean and his gang in Ocean’s Eleven, the Kims aren’t out for a wad of cash. They may be manufacturing false identities to make more money than they’ve ever dreamed of, but, even in this bit of asymmetrical class warfare, the grand prize they’re after is still just the privilege of being the help. The clever repurposing of blockbuster tropes is a Bong calling card, as is the deep undertow of sociological grimness beneath the tension-filled high jinks. After the Kims’ “heist,” Parasite’s social satire, tightly plotted caper, and character-based comedy give way to action sequences, horrorlike starts and stabs, and, ultimately, stinging tragedy. The epistolary coda makes the act of hope pitiable.

“Parasite stands out in Bong’s filmography for the severity of its conclusion, but in most ways it is the apotheosis of the auteur’s signature concerns and techniques.”

“Much of Parasite’s appeal, though, is that Bong’s humor keeps the class allegory from ever feeling self-important or didactic.”

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