Water is everywhere in Bong Joon-ho’s highly anticipated class drama, Parasite. It bursts out of toilets in black-green deluges, it comes down from the sky in an unrelenting storm, it spills out of people as blooming pools of blood. Water is everywhere, but how the characters in Parasite cope with it differs wildly depending on how much money they have, and if they can literally afford to run from the water’s rage.
For the Park family, a downpour means a cancelled camping trip and returning to their luxurious modern mansion. For the Kim family, a downpour means a sewage flood and the inevitable collapse of their house and finances, which were teetering to begin with.
Parasite isn’t Bong’s first film to look at class and capitalism with cynical scrutiny — he’s well known for Snowpiercer, in which Chris Evans plays a gruff revolter battling class inequality on an ever-moving train, and Okja, a semi-satirical takedown of capitalism which released on Netflix in 2017.
But Parasite is Bong’s first movie to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s also the first time that a South Korean director has ever achieved that honor, and it only takes a few minutes of watching the film to understand how it won with a unanimous vote.
Parasite starts out as a light-hearted, whimsical comedy about a family living in poverty conning their way into an ultra-wealthy home. Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) miraculously scores an English tutoring gig with the privileged daughter of tech millionaire Nathan Park (Lee Sun-kyun), and quickly plots to have his sister, father, and mother take over all other necessary functions of the house. It feels almost like a game to watch the scheme unfold with intricate lies and complicated and valid intentions. They play the Park family like chess, each piece toppling into place until the Kims have fully integrated themselves into their home.
But then, Parasite drastically morphs into a whole other genre with little warning but incredible grace. About halfway through the film, a dark secret spins the movie around, flipping and twisting the plot with surprising elegance.
“The second half of the film didn’t actually occur to me for the first few years I was thinking about this story,” Joon-ho said about the twist to The Atlantic. “Then it all came to me, and I wrote like it was a hurricane.”
Part of that is also owed to its fusion of comedy and terror. Parasite does tonal acrobats. Scenes swerve between horrifying and hilarious. Sometimes they uncomfortably settle in both categories: A dog munches on barbecued meat that’s skewered into a human body; a woman is pushed down a flight of stairs while charming, non-diegetic high-speed music plays; two eyes curiously peer out of the darkness with perfect comedic timing, but traumatize a first-grader in the process.
Parasite is ultimately a fable about the pitfalls of capitalism — how extreme poverty and wealth stand as proof to the failures of this system. The movie isn’t subtle about this in the slightest, but somehow, the heavy-handedness doesn’t feel heavy-handed. If anything, there’s a lot of power in how the movie looks at class with an unflinching glare, and manages to confuse what we might be preordained to think about right and wrong.
The Kims have infiltrated this household with lies and worse. And yet, it’s hard to think that they’re the bad guys in this situation. The Parks, despite being generally nice people, unwittingly show off their classism when they believe no one else is around. “People who ride the subway have a special smell,” Mr. Park says, disgusted. “I haven’t taken the subway in years,” Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) says, seconds before the two fetishize poverty for sex.
Parasite isn’t saying anything new. But because the grace with which it’s said and because its characters’ aspirations are so vivid, there’s really no doubt that Bong Joon-ho’s latest creation is really, devastatingly special. Parasite is necessary watching.
UPDATE: Parasite won the Oscar for Best Picture on Feb. 9, 2020, becoming the first foreign-language film to do so.
Now playing in AMC Kabuki 8 and various theaters.
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.