The first thing you see in Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” a thriller of extraordinary cunning and emotional force, is an upper window in a tiny underground apartment. From this high, narrow vantage the Kims, a resilient family of four, peer onto a grubby Seoul street strewn with garbage bags and electrical wires — an ugly view made worse by a drunk who often turns up to relieve himself right outside. Sometime later the Kims will stand before a much larger window, as big and beautiful as a cinema screen, in an enormous house with a gorgeous sunlit garden. It’s not just a different view; it’s a different world.
From the outset of this deviously entertaining movie, which recently became the first South Korean film to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, every detail of the Kims’ hardscrabble existence is on blunt display. In an early scene, high school graduate Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) and his sister, Ki-jung (Park So Dam), scurry around their cramped bathroom with their phones held aloft, hunting for a free Wi-Fi signal. You register the clutter of their apartment with its discarded clothes, mildewed tiles and skittering stinkbugs. You watch the Kims fold and assemble pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant, the closest any of them has recently come to landing a job.
But you also notice the close bonds between brother and sister, as well as the easy rapport they share with their boisterous father, Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho), and sharp-witted mother, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin). Living together in close quarters has bred in them a matter-of-fact intimacy and a wily self-sufficiency.
Bong has never been one to ennoble or romanticize his characters’ poverty, but he does invest them with a terrific rooting interest. “Parasite,” with its tough, unsentimental view of people doing what they must to survive, initially suggests an evil twin to “Shoplifters,” Hirokazu Kore-eda’s lovely drama about a family of petty thieves (which, incidentally, won the Palme last year).
But the movie swiftly establishes its own unpredictable agenda not long after Ki-woo inherits an English tutoring job from a college-student friend (Park Seo Joon). The pupil in question is an upper-class teenage girl, Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso), and their lessons will take place in the gated modernist fortress she calls home. Ki-woo just barely manages to keep a lid on his awe the first time the Parks’ formidable housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung Eun), ushers him inside. Designed and formerly inhabited by a famous architect, the house is a masterwork of real-estate pornography with its beige walls, marble floors and vast, cavernous spaces.
But it is also a warren of secrets, full of telling details that Bong, a superb storyteller and a master of camera movement, unwraps with elegance and economy. (The cinematography is by Hong Kyung Pyo.) He calls your attention to the toy arrows fired by Da-hye’s younger brother, Da-song (Jung Hyeon Jun), and also to a framed magazine article about her father, Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun), a millionaire tech titan. But no one embodies the family’s glossy pretensions more nakedly than Dong-ik’s wife, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong), whether she’s idly stroking one of the family’s three dogs or peppering her everyday speech with English affectations.
Yeon-kyo’s breezy entitlement hides a naive, nervous streak, and Cho’s performance suggests just how gullible and vulnerable the very rich can be behind their high-tech security systems. When Yeon-kyo lets drop that her mischief-making young son is in need of an art tutor, Ki-woo, thinking fast, suggests a distant acquaintance for the job — and, within days, has succeeded in installing his sister in the house as well. Ki-jung, the most intuitive grifter in a family full of them, shows up with a coolly professional demeanor and a mouth full of therapeutic gobbledygook. (She got it all from Google, she later announces to her family’s amusement.)
The Kims enjoy their sudden boost in income, but their ambitions — and the dramatic stakes — only escalate from there. I wouldn’t dream of disclosing the stunning, multilayered surprises that await you in “Parasite,” though it gives away nothing to note that it’s about two families on warring sides of the class divide. Certainly it says nothing about the dexterity with which Bong shuffles tones, moods and genres, or the Hitchcockian precision with which he and his co-writer, Han Jin Won, have booby-trapped their narrative. Taking cues from classics of domestic intrigue such as Kim Ki-young’s “The Housemaid” (1960) and Joseph Losey’s “The Servant” (1963), they send this domestic drama vaulting into satire, suspense, terror and full-blown tragedy.
The first hour or so of “Parasite” is simply the most dazzling movie about the joys of the con I’ve seen in years. It’s a heist thriller of the quotidian, in which no everyday object — a piece of fruit, a child’s drawing — is too trivial to be weaponized. Bong, his camera at once ecstatic and controlled, brings the pieces together with the brio of a conductor attacking a great symphony. But even as he lures us into a wicked sense of complicity with the Kims, he also suggests that they aren’t the only ones with something to hide.
As this allegory of class rage plays out, you may find yourself wondering about the exact meaning of the movie’s title. At first it seems the parasites must be the lowly Kims, who are so interdependent that they often seem less like individuals than members of a single, unified organism. (Watch the way they sometimes squat and crawl around in private, like stealthy four-legged insects — or perhaps just people accustomed to low ceilings.) But then, surely the title more truthfully describes the Parks, whose lives of extravagant luxury represent the real moral and financial scourge in a ruthless late-capitalist society.
Yet Bong refuses the crutch of an easy target. He peels back the layers of privilege to expose the tremendous sadness and patriarchal cruelty of the Park household, where Yeon-kyo lives in fear of her husband and instinctively prioritizes her son’s needs over her daughter’s. The Kims are a model of functionality and egalitarianism by comparison, and while they may covet their employers’ prosperity, there is never any real doubt here about which is the more loving, stable family unit.
Bong has never been one for uncomplicated heroes or easy villains: Think of the sympathetic grotesques Tilda Swinton played in “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” the dystopian eco-thrillers the director made before this film. He has always had a knack for fusing genre pleasures and liberal polemics, as he did in his brilliant 2006 monster movie, “The Host.” With their cleverly linked titles and their shared star (Song, one of Korea’s best actors), “The Host” and “Parasite” feel like natural companion pieces, right down to the haunting echoes in their respective final shots: At heart, they’re both movies about downtrodden families doing what they must to survive in a cold, indifferent world.
What distinguishes “Parasite” even within Bong’s body of work is its discipline: This is a tighter, more intimately scaled picture than “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” and it proceeds like clockwork without ever feeling airless or mechanical. That’s a tribute to the note-perfect ensemble, especially Park So Dam, Cho Yeo Jeong and the astonishing Lee Jeong Eun as three women driven to three unique states of desperation. But it’s also a tribute to a filmmaker whose understanding of the world is as persuasive in its cruelty as it is trenchant in its humanity. “Parasite” begins in exhilaration and ends in devastation, but the triumph of the movie is that it fully lives and breathes at every moment, even when you might find yourself struggling to exhale.
Rating: R, for language, some violence and sexual content
Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles