The ferocious, chilling Parasite is an essential thrill ride about social inequality

The upstairs-downstairs construct — in which the literal levels of a house demarcate the differences between the wealthy and those who serve them — has long worked as shorthand for class division and struggle. (See: every British period drama, ever.) The “upstairs” people are comfortable, happy, and prefer to be oblivious to what’s going on “downstairs” with the hired help, who do their work and live their lives invisibly alongside.

In Parasite, Korean horror master Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Snowpiercer) draws on that visual metaphor for a twisty, pummeling thriller that’s among his best work. It’s thematically familiar territory for Bong; his films always pair heart-stopping and imaginative terror with humor and a healthy dose of raging at inequality. Parasite feels in many ways like the culmination.

That’s partly because Bong is working at the top of his game, constructing with his cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo a world where drastic shifts occur between the insides of houses that don’t just signify changing living conditions but the interior state of the inhabitants. Everything on these characters’ insides shows up outside, too — and that may be why their world is in chaos.

Parasite is a tale of two families in a symbiotic relationship

It’s not wise to say too much about the plot of Parasite, because its jarring left turns are what make it so pointedly critical of the vast inequalities in its world and, perhaps more importantly, the inability of the haves to recognize how their lives affect the have-nots.

But it starts out like a satirical story of grifters — specifically, the Kim family, who aren’t poverty-stricken yet but are definitely headed that way. The four of them, two parents and two university-aged children who can’t possibly afford university, live in a dingy apartment that’s half below-ground. They have to peer out their high windows to see what’s happening on the sidewalk directly outside. The Kims scrape to make ends meet, folding pizza boxes to earn a little cash and running around the apartment chasing wifi signals from the coffeeshop next door. When the fumigator comes by to spray the streets, they open their windows, hoping to kill some of the vermin that live in there with them.

A scene from Parasite, in which a family is folding pizza boxes.
The Kim family folds pizza boxes in their apartment for cash.
Courtesy of TIFF

One day, son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) is given a great opportunity: His friend is leaving a job tutoring a wealthy teenaged girl in English and would like to recommend Ki-woo in his place. Ki-woo agrees, introduces himself to the Park family as “Kevin,” and starts tutoring Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), who promptly falls in love with him.

Through some fortuitous events and also some mild-to-moderate lying, Ki-woo soon succeeds in getting the Parks to hire the rest of his family members, too — his sister (Park So-dam) as an art tutor to Da-hye’s younger brother, his father (Song Kang-ho) as chauffeur to the wealthy entrepreneur father, and his mother (Jang Hye-jin) as housekeeper — all without the Parks quite realizing they’ve hired an entire family. Everyone seems happy. Everything is good in the world.

Until it all goes very, very sideways.

Parasite is an unpredictable, thought-provoking masterpiece about inequality

Bong’s films are always hilarious and farcical, almost slapstick and then violent. There are no real heroes but few true villains; people do ignoble things to one another but you kind of get the reason why. Everyone in a Bong Joon-ho film is, at least to some degree, the victim of his or her circumstances. They’re cogs in a much, much larger machine — or to put it another way, just creatures living in an ecosystem they cannot possibly control.

Parasite feels like the movie the director has been training to make throughout his entire career. It’s a movie about the ugly, brutal hilarity of modern life, where some people get to live out in the open and others are forced into the shadows, but everyone’s sucking one another’s life blood. The fun in unraveling Parasite is figuring out just who the title is about and why they’re the parasite here. (It seems not entirely coincidental that one of Bong’s earlier breakout hits was the fabulous 2006 monster movie The Host.)

The movie serves up a rich stew of caustic wit and catastrophe, and watching the spaces the characters move through is a key to making it all work, from the dingy dirt of the Kims’ half-basement home to the Parks’ spacious and airy house, built as a work of art by a famous architect. The contrast is a stark reminder to the Kims of what they could have and how they assume it would make them feel if they did.

A man whispering into a woman’s ear in Parasite.
The Parks live a happy and comfortable life. At first.
Courtesy of TIFF

And yet Bong and co-writer Han Jin-won don’t fall into stereotypes of haves and have-nots, either. This is not a movie about how rich people are actually miserable. Whether it’s because of their surroundings or just a coincidence, the Parks seem to live an untroubled and happy existence; their crime is in being so comfortable that they can’t really imagine anyone is struggling. And the Kims are not made saints by their poverty, either.

Combine those characters with an unpredictable plot and Parasite emerges as a masterpiece. It’s also an exemplary specimen of a kind of movie that’s proliferated this year — movies like Knives Out and Ready or Not and Joker and many, many others, each about the mounting gap between the rich and the rest of the world. It’s been a marked trend, and Parasite is one of the finest, probably because Bong knows his way around a visual metaphor (and as the movie goes on, it’s a lot more than just the houses). No wonder the movie won the Palme d’or at Cannes in May.

And while it’s hugely entertaining, Parasite is also thought-provoking. By the time the catharsis arrives, you think you’re at the end of the film, but a coda adds a new wrinkle to the whole thing. If a parasite eventually takes over its host, then what will happen to a world where everyone, in some way, is a parasite for someone else?

Parasite premiered at Cannes in May and played at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters on October 11.