Parasite: Money is eating us from inside.

“Next time we use Angie’s List.” Photo courtesy of Neon

The last time director Bong Joon Ho centered a film around the class divide was SnowPiercer, in which he fashioned a post-apocalyptic train endlessly circling an uninhabitable earth, with the poor folk in the caboose forced to literally fight their way forward, to the resources horded by the privileged. As with most dystopian fantasies, its message was writ large, in a buck-toothed Tilda Swinton cursive.

With Parasite, Bong sets the same theme in a real-world context. He ditches his fantastical beasts and caricatures and the results are devastating. It’s the best film of the year.

This time around the disenfranchised move ahead through cunning, using both the ruthlessness needed to survive on the fringes and an understanding of how the wealthy think. Their marks, who’ve known nothing but comfort and never had any interest in how the desperate relate to the world, are no match.

Parasite also showcases Bong’s mastery at weaving humor and satire with suspense. The movie opens with a down-and-out family who are even more concerned with losing their pilfered wifi access than going hungry. A friend of the son visits and asks him to take over a tutoring gig for a wealthy couple’s daughter. With the recommendation from his well-off friend, a forged degree (the son couldn’t afford to finish college) and street smarts, the son secures the position. This launches a comical and brilliantly choreographed sequence of scenes as each family member takes advantage of a weakness in the rich couple – insecurity, prudishness, overprotectiveness – to secure a position in the household for another family member, acting as if they don’t know each other. 

With each clandestine infringement by the poor family into the lives of the rich one, the tension mounts, and Bong slowly phases out the humor as dread takes its place. Where that dread ends up is so unexpected that if you were already on the edge of your seat, you’ll be crawling onto the armrest.

The movie has both families behaving badly, so we aren’t steered into the kind of allegiances most movies try to get audiences to make so they feel better when violence is perpetrated (talking to you, Joker). Desperation forces the poor son to lie to get his lucrative tutoring job, but the family gets greedy when they see more money to be had by going deeper and deeper into the deception. The rich couple, for their part, feel they’re being generous and trusting by hiring off the advice of people they barely know, but this behavior really stems from their belief that these workers are all disposable. The real tragedy is that through to the end, everyone, rich and poor, continues to believe that money can solve all troubles.

Bong peppers the narrative with both classic thriller foreshadowing – like the gift of a large ‘wealth stone’ to the poor family that we know will come to no good – and sublimely subtle details revealing characters’ inner lives, as when the rich husband discusses firing his driver while drinking from a disposable juice pouch and his wife slips on single-use plastic gloves to examine the panties planted in the car to incriminate the driver.

With its mix of incisive social commentary and horror/thriller plot devices, Parasite will be compared to Jordan Peele’s excellent Us and Get OutParasite, though, is more of a slow burn. The twists are every bit as clever and shocking, but feel a bit more organic than in Peele’s films. It’s a truly satisfying movie on every level, a fascinating parable about the single most insidious bug humankind has never been able to eradicate.

Parasite is now playing in limited release.

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