Recently, Latin American films such as The Maid (Chile), The Second Mother (Brazil), and Roma (Mexico) have explored what it’s like to work for and constantly be surrounded by people who have much more money than you. Joining their ranks is the new and darkly hilarious Korean film called Parasite, and it just might be the best of them. Not only that, it seals a serious case for Bong Joon-ho as one of the great filmmakers of all time — not today, all time. This comes to Tarrant County theaters toting the top prize from the Cannes Film Festival, and if it doesn’t figure in the Oscars next year, I’ll eat a plate of hongeo.
The film begins with the Kim family living in a cartoon version of poverty, as everyone works a single job folding pizza boxes for a delivery place down the road. Their apartment has so many stink bugs that when the city fumigates the street, the Kims happily leave their windows open and breathe in the insecticide while they fold more boxes. All this changes when teenage son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is left a tip by a college-student buddy (Park Seo-joon). The friend has left his side job as an English tutor to Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the teenage daughter to a wealthy tech mogul (Lee Sun-kyun), so Ki-woo shows up with a forged diploma and lands the gig. When he learns that the fretful Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) is looking for an art teacher for her rambunctious young son, Ki-woo recommends his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam), passing her off as a distant acquaintance and American university graduate named Jessica. Soon, both their parents (Song Kang-ho and Jang Hye-jin) are working for the Parks as well, with everybody pretending not to know one another.
This family of grifters works with the ruthless precision of a SWAT team, digging into the Parks’ personal lives so that they can provide what the Parks want before they want it. When the Parks’ chauffeur (Park Geun-rok) grossly hits on Ki-jung, the Kims frame him for misdeeds and get him fired. They do the same to the family’s suspicious old housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun), and it’s a spicy commentary on how easily poor people can be made to turn on one another in a capitalist society.
The stylishly modern Park mansion makes a cool-looking backdrop for the comedy. Doing farce is one of the most underrated skills a filmmaker can have, as it requires comic timing and the orchestration of so many moving parts. Bong’s dexterity is dazzling in an extended set piece when the Kims are caught inside the house after the Parks return unexpectedly from a camping trip, as well as in an earlier one when Jessica convinces Mrs. Park that her son is schizophrenic just by analyzing one of the boy’s drawings. This farce is an unsparing (though not uncompassionate) portrait of so many levels of South Korean society, reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Helping all of it along are brilliant comic performances across the entire cast, with Song (a mainstay of Bong’s films) proving once again that he’s one of the world’s greatest actors and Lee Jung-eun doing a great imitation of a North Korean news anchor when the housekeeper gains leverage over the Kims.
In addition, the film has one of the great “Oh, my God” plot twists of this decade, which takes place in the Parks’ basement (is it me, or do lots of Korean films wind up in the basement?) and leads it into darker territory. If previous Bong films like The Host and Snowpiercer laced their horror with comedy, this one and his previous Okja lace their comedy with horror. All the class warfare erupts into violence in a climactic scene that doubles as the worst kid’s birthday party ever, and it isn’t jarring because Bong has so adroitly foreshadowed it. The hijinks are underpinned by a nagging anxiety, as Ki-woo asks Da-hye late on whether he belongs in a house like theirs. His fantasy of buying the Park mansion concludes the film, and it’s powerfully sad because we know there’s no way it’ll happen. Nobody leaves a Bong film unscathed, and that’s especially true for Parasite, a savage and terribly funny indictment of society.
Starring Song Kang-ho and Lee Sun-kyun. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Written by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won. Rated R.