Income inequality has seldom been funnier than in Parasite, a scathing satire-farce-tragedy-horror from South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) in which a family of scrappy strivers weasel their way into the employ of a rich family and find out how the 1 percent lives. Turns out there’s plenty of misery to go around, it’s just a different kind of misery when you’re rich.
Our poor family are the Kims — father (Song Kang-ho), mother (Hyae Jin Chang), teenage son (Choi Woo-sik), teenage daughter (Park So-dam) — a fairly happy, cohesive unit living in a basement apartment doing odd jobs like folding pizza boxes for cash. The son, Ki-woo, stumbles into an opportunity to be an English tutor to Da-hye (Jung Ziso), daughter of the wealthy Park family on the other side of town. He exaggerates his credentials to get the gig, using his sister’s forgery skills (which the whole family is proud of) to fake a degree, but he’s not a complete fraud. He really is a good English tutor.
The same is true of the rest of them. One by one, the Kims do some moderate to heavy fibbing and manipulation to get household jobs they’re qualified for (housekeeper, chauffeur, and art teacher for the rambunctious young Park son) but wouldn’t be able to get otherwise — in two cases, because the jobs they want are already occupied, which requires some more darkly funny scheming. They hide their relationships to one another from the Parks, who are wowed by their good fortune in finding four new loyal, hardworking servants in such a short span of time.
Once these pieces are in place, Bong goes in some directions you’d expect, like a situation where all four Kims are livin’ it up at the house while the Parks are away, then have to scramble and hide (except for Mom the housekeeper, who’s supposed to be there) when the family comes home unexpectedly. That sequence, which follows a crucial Kim family discussion about rich vs. poor, is somehow both farcical and suspenseful. There is also, of course, the ongoing comedic tension over when or how the Kims’ plot will be discovered by their employers, and commentary on how different their lives are. The Parks are grateful for a torrential rainstorm, which they find charming; meanwhile, the rain is flooding the Kims’ apartment. Talk about trickle-down economics.
While the tone is caustic, the humor dark, there’s a certain amount of sympathy for everyone involved. Mr. and Mrs. Park (Lee Sun-kyun and Jo Yeo-jeong), young and attractive and carefree, are isolated from reality by their absurd wealth, and they have strict ideas about servants “crossing the line.” But they aren’t unkind people; they’re just in a different world. They come by their obliviousness honestly. And I suppose that’s the problem: The super-rich just don’t know any better.
Bong takes the story in directions you wouldn’t expect, too, and which I would sooner die than reveal. (I suppose viewers who are familiar with his other films will have some guesses.) You might not like where it goes, but you certainly won’t forget it. That Bong Joon-ho is a mad genius is probably something both rich and poor can agree on.