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The Meek Inherit the Mansion: ‘Parasite’ Is a Twisted Parable

Bong Joon-ho’s latest takes on class warfare with a satire that is never quite what it seems on first glance

Neon/Ringer illustration

Parasite hits a limited number of theaters in the U.S. on Friday. This review of the movie (and Bacurau) was originally published on September 6 after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

At the beginning of Parasite, the characters can’t get WiFi. Jammed asses to elbows in a subterranean apartment whose single dingy window offers a street-level view of one of Seoul’s least affluent enclaves, the members of the Kim family—father Ki-Taek (Song Kang-Ho); wife Choong Sook (Jang Hye-jin); high school graduate Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and his moody younger sister Ki-jeong (Park So-Dam)—are cut off from the pleasures and necessities of the surface world. Holding her cellphone aloft as she desperately scans the ceiling for hot spots, Ki-jeong locates one above the family toilet, which sits on a raised platform in their dirty bathroom. Breathing a sigh of relief, she logs on at last, wedging her leggy frame in the cramped space between the ceiling and the commode.

As a vision of people living below the poverty line, the prologue of Bong Joon-ho’s much-praised new movie, which unanimously won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and has grossed an astonishing $70.9 million in South Korea ahead of its North American release this fall, is lucid and hilarious. When a city employee suddenly starts spraying their apartment from the outside-in with a sickly gray mist designed to battle a neighborhood infestation, the Kims hold their ground, as if grateful to be fumigated. In lieu of the gentle and sometimes condescending empathy that usually defines films about cash-strapped characters—including last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s lovely, wistful Shoplifters—Bong foregrounds and even celebrates his protagonists’ cockroach-like tenacity. Their willingness to withstand toxic fumes is like a defiant fuck-you to the very idea of extermination, and even as Parasite reveals its shape as a satirical parable of upward mobility, the Kims’ hardwired survival instincts remain on display. They may eventually make it out of the darkness and into the light, but that doesn’t mean they’ll metamorphose into bourgeois butterflies.

The insect-ish vibe to the title of Parasite is no mistake, as the Kims do become bloodsuckers grazing off the Parks, a well-heeled family who, through a series of elegant machinations orchestrated by Ki-jeong (an aspiring actress with a parallel gift for forgery), hire them to perform a series of servile domestic tasks. The joke early on is that the Parks—especially the pretty, primped, and young mother (Jo Yeo-jeong)—are oblivious to the fact that the Kims are even related, believing the chain of events that has brought four “strangers” under their roof and into their confidence to simply be a coincidence. (The Parks’ mansion also has a single window to look out of, though an IMAX-sized one, suggesting that people with a luxurious view still can’t see the things that count.) The pleasure here is that of watching people who have everything get had, and Bong, who is easily one of the most fluid and assured storytellers in contemporary cinema, revels in all the brazen manipulation, which peaks with the brilliantly executed (and unspeakably cruel) exiling of the Parks’ long-serving housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun).

It’s a move that seemingly eliminates any obstacle to the Kims’ new, blissfully symbiotic existence. But as Mr. Kim is fond of saying, life rarely goes according to plan, and the speed and ferocity with which things fall apart—and with which Parasite mutates from a sly upstairs-downstairs satire into something more literally and tonally multileveled—is something to behold. If the best thrillers are the ones that work to pull the rug out from under the viewer, Parasite, with its deceptively well-prepared and astonishingly realized introduction of a completely separate (but insidiously interlinked) narrative lurking underneath the characters’ feet, doubles down on the vertiginous feeling of not knowing where you stand. Its brilliant middle section pivots on the best reveal since Get Out’s invocation of the “sunken place,” and Bong’s sociology is no less potent than Jordan Peele’s. In fact, a double bill of Parasite and Peele’s shadow-self psychodrama Us would be instructive, both in terms of their eerily similar approaches to a postmillennial zeitgeist in which class aspiration and rage have merged into one molten entity, and also to show how much more adept Bong is at merging comedy, terror, drama, symbolism, and a keen sense of cinematic history into a fully integrated package.

I also couldn’t help but think about Parasite—the best-directed movie I’ve seen all year—in the context of last year’s virtuoso foreign-language crossover, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a movie that it relates to as a kind of mischievously evil twin. Each film represents a homecoming for its director after adventures abroad in English-language filmmaking (with Bong’s one-two punch of Snowpiercer and Okja roughly analogous in terms of elevated-genre style to Children of Men and Gravity); each film, at its core, is about the relationship between homeowners and their housekeepers. But where Cuarón sentimentally sanctifies Roma’s live-in heroine, Bong lets his workers retain their jagged edges, suggesting a very different and less deferential mind-set and complicating not only the onscreen relationships but also the angle from which we receive and react to such socioeconomically fraught material.

An even better comparison might be Burning by Bong’s countryman Lee Chang-dong. Although its approach to national portraiture is a very different (it’s like a grotesque Mad magazine caricature versus Burning’s lyrical landscape study), Parasite’s incandescent anger seems forged in the same roiling cultural context. That Bong’s movie succeeds in feeling simultaneously specific to its time and place and finally universal is what could make it a crossover hit akin to his 2006 monster movie The Host, which yoked a critique of authoritarianism (and U.S. interventionism) to a creature-feature narrative almost as simple and elemental as Jaws. In 2013, Quentin Tarantino declared that Bong could very well be the new Steven Spielberg. Certainly, that comparison still makes sense after Parasite, which in places evokes the domestic paranoia of certain Spielberg-branded suburban fantasies (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, Gremlins), and features chase sequences as well-choreographed as anything in Minority Report. But six years later, it’s also getting to the point where Bong is his own measuring stick.

With this in mind, Brazilian filmmakers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, which won a runner-up prize at Cannes, falls a bit short while still going further than most movies dare in depicting and denouncing the dark side of globalism and its debt to a late-capitalist mentality. There’s certainly a parallel to Parasite in this story of two combative factions, but the movie is much closer to an U.S. film that remains infamously unreleased: Craig Zobel’s The Hunt, which was dropped by its distributor after arousing the ire of the Twittersphere and, in particular, President Donald Trump for a premise in which wealthy U.S. liberals pay to hunt rednecks in their natural habitat—blue-state sportsmen shooting deplorables in a basket.

Bacurau is about the exact same thing, with the scene set in Brazil; as the film opens, the eponymous (and fictional) village has already been chosen as the site of target practice for a group of foreigners whose arcane, self-imposed rules—like using only old-fashioned guns—slyly align them with the safari-ish arrogance of The Predator. What’s interesting is that in many of their stylistic choices, Filho and Dornelles are intentionally trying to conjure up that ’80s action-flick aesthetic à la John McTiernan—or John Carpenter, who gets name-checked in a bit of background set dressing, nodded to in synthy music cues, and honored by cinematographer Pedro Sotero’s sublime widescreen compositions. Although he’s typically praised as a pure genre filmmaker, Carpenter always had a wicked (if inconsistent) ideological streak, and Bacurau is like a cross between the stripped-down siege mentality of Assault on Precinct 13 and the pithy black comedy of They Live. Before we see the bad guys, we see the drone they’re using to keep tabs on their victims, and it looks just like a UFO: It points, like Carpenter’s paranoid invasion classic, to aliens in our midst.

Filho played smartly with paranoia in his 2012 breakthrough Neighboring Sounds, which was set in a gated community dealing with the arrival of a private security firm; the sleek, modernized setting belied a lurking sense of violence. Bacurau is at once a companion piece and a reversal of its predecessor, turning its gaze on Brazil’s marginalized inhabitants and emphasizing an utter lack of protection; even before the killers touch down, Bacurau’s citizens have to contend with unscrupulous, irresponsible and absentee local politicians. (They also can’t get a cellphone signal, although that’s because there’s a private satellite jamming them a thousand miles into space.) Like Bong, Filho and Dornelles are too smart (and funny) to idealize their heroes, opting instead to emphasize their orneriness, which doesn’t for a minute mitigate the hideousness of their fate. But instead of simply leaning into their grim metaphor of a world where the meek are mowed down before they can inherit the Earth, Filho and Dornelles imagine a version of events in which the playing field of the most dangerous game gets leveled, effortlessly tricking us into cheering on the ensuing, brutal catharsis once the power dynamic flips.

The question of whether Bacurau takes too long to finally turn the tables is worth asking, and its implications don’t necessarily resonate after the movie is over. But its excellent craftsmanship and satisfying follow-through should earn it a devoted cult. If that doesn’t do it, the mere presence of Udo Kier—the patron saint of problematic trash, last seen collaborating with S. Craig Zahler in Dragged Across Concrete —ought to attract a few bloodshot, late-night-screening eyeballs.