“That’s your plan?” Kim family patriarch Ki-taek asks a man who desires nothing from life but to live unseen in a bunker under the earth. Tough talk for a guy whose entire family pulled an intricate grift on the filthy rich Park household with the nefarious goal of… being the Parks’ servants. Like the rest of the social satire in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, it’s caustic stuff. Once the film gets its teeth into the ways in which class distorts our vision of society and of ourselves it never lets go, and the increasingly personal, uncomfortable tone leads to one of the most surprising endings in recent film. Parasite is moving but never sentimental, ugly but never nihilistic; it’s a ruthless movie, clever and fast-moving in spite of its length.
Bong’s direction is some of the finest urban work in recent years, sketching Parasite’s nameless city setting in wildly divergent colors and contours. Narrow alleyways cutting between tight-packed housing festooned with telephone wires and flickering lights, an empty modernist mansion of glass and concrete with nerve-wracking sight lines and unseen, more organic rooms like hidden organs, the Kim family’s squalid basement apartment treated with an utter lack of preciousness; Bong wrestles each and every aesthetic in the film into a cohesive whole reminiscent of nothing so much as a gigantic dysfunctional body, sterile on the outside but heaving with barely-contained filth under the skin.
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The movie’s exploration of the desire to be rich and the cognitive distortions it produces is comical but biting, delving into the ugly feeling of privilege that service to the affluent can instill in the servant, as well as the relaxed entitlement the rich feel toward their employees. In one brutally tense extended scene the Kim family, nearly caught partying in the Parks’ mansion while the bosses are out of town, hide from the Parks and overhear a cruel discussion of Ki-taek’s body odor, which Mr. Park compares to an “old turnip.” Ki-taek sniffs himself, visibly hurt. The Kim family’s distinctive “poor person smell” is a prominent idea in the film’s back half as, having insinuated themselves into the Parks’ lives, the Kims begin to chafe at their employers’ exploitative behavior.
The film wisely leaves most of its messy class conflict up to the viewer to puzzle out, communicating it through expressions and comical scenes of Mrs. Park dragging Ki-taek through grocery stores and outlets under heaps of parcels. When it does discuss class it’s razor sharp and ugly, as when Mr. Park discusses his idea of “the line” his servants must not cross not long before he forces said servants to perform a pantomime in Native American costumes at his young son’s birthday. That easy violation only goes one way in Park’s mind. Earlier we see his wife rest her bare feet a few inches from Ki-taek’s face, chatting on the phone with her rich friends as he drives her on his day off. With its cutting script and ruthlessly hilarious story, Parasite is out for blood right from the jump — and it gets it.