Cul de Sacked

Bong Joon-ho, Gisaengchung (Parasite), 2019, DCP, color, sound, 132 minutes. Cho Yeo Jeong.

IF BONG JOON-HO’S PARASITE WERE AN EQUATION, it would be expressed as Space = Class2. Bong’s rippling socioeconomic comedy lays out inequality in both schematic and organic terms: two diametrically opposed worlds, two status-indicative smells (pristine affluence, dank deprivation), two intertwined households (each consisting of father, mother, son, and daughter). In one tight corner are the scrappy, underclass Kims, struggling to stay afloat in jury-rigged “semi-basement” living quarters (their toilet is perched on a counter) at the wrong end of a flood-prone, bug-infested cul-de-sac. “Open the windows,” says Dad, when a sanitation worker sprays pesticide through the neighborhood, figuring the free fumigation is worth the lung damage. Everything is a trade-off.

Intersecting with the heedlessly wealthy Park family—ensconced behind a nondescript garden wall, the Parks live in airy, casual haute-bourgeois splendor—the Kims land in their midst like a stone splashing in a lake. When Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) falls into a cushy gig tutoring college-bound Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso), his foot in the door allows the rest of the clan to insinuate themselves into the upscale house with obstinate gusto. Sis (Park So-dam) forges documents for her brother and Googles “art therapy” to pass herself off as a mental-health professional to help the Parks’ young autistic/artistic son. She double-talks the impressionable Mrs. Park into seeing “the schizophrenia zone” in the child’s paintings and is hired on the spot.

Bong’s framing and pacing is a marvel of astute visual cues and narrative push. He has graduated from the hyperbolic Terry Gilliam fabulism of Snowpiercer (2013) and the superior but still cutesy Okja (2017), having now fully absorbed salient aspects of Soderbergh and the Coen brothers. Rendering class conflict with fluidly dynamic strokes, he blends the half-raw and the facile with ruthless assurance. Parasite’s comedy isn’t strictly unpredictable, but its one-shoe-dropping-after-another march is tethered to an exuberant internal logic that makes unforeseen complications land with a satisfying click—like a hybrid game where puzzle pieces double as chess pieces.

Bong Joon-ho, Gisaengchung (Parasite), 2019, DCP, color, sound, 132 minutes. Choi Woo-sik, Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, Park So-dam.

As Kim Ki-woo auditions for his tutoring position, he makes a risky move in front of the mother: He jumps out of his own downtrodden character and into a brash fake-it-till-you-make-it imposture of authority. The improvised resourcefulness of rank marginals as they game the system and its oblivious elites is one of the chief delights of Bong’s film. Parasite pinpoints a very particular fulcrum of poverty vis-à-vis or versus the inanities and insanities of the hyper-privileged. Speaking from personal experience, if instead of being crushed by the sheer eviscerating hopelessness of such circumstances (big Russian roulette “if” there) you can navigate the tightrope of crazy, arbitrary situations, there’s a special exhilaration in those moments when you can Flying Wallenda your way over it.

In short order, the Kims get the Parks’ driver sacked, playing on the squirmy fastidiousness of Mr. Park, who is mortified by the thought a servant might have left semen on his seat. (Parasite hinges on this insistence that servants know their place, and on what breaks loose when they finally lose it.) After the senior Kim (a soulfully scabrous Song Kang-ho) is installed as the new chauffeur, they next apply a cruel ingenuity (an allergy to peaches as TB scare tactics) to undermine the kindly housekeeper and cook. It’s this bit of gratuitous interclass warfare that comes back to haunt the Kims: Their good fortune runs into an underground obstacle, a literalization of South Korea’s bunker mentality. The movie then plunges into a choreographed spiral of indignities, humiliations, and aggressions that they try to conceal from the inattentive Parks.

In the third act, Bong attempts to torque the comedy of credulousness, misjudgment, and close calls into something like Strangelovian tragedy. There are moments when this is in reach, particularly in the pained eagerness of Song Kang-ho as a father who knows this is his last, best chance to atone for a life of defeats big and small. Nice expanses of time stretch out like sustained notes, playing up or against suspenseful hide-and-seek gambits inside the pretense of domesticity-as-usual.

Bong Joon-ho, Gisaengchung (Parasite), 2019, DCP, color, sound, 132 minutes. Park So-dam and Choi Woo-sik.

But Parasite winds up playing Beat the Clock to converge too many plot points on an impromptu birthday party that’s more like an over-rehearsed reenactment of a catastrophe. The eruptive carnage is handled in such a pro forma way as to drain all the terror, shame, and rage out of events: Coy touches like the little dog snitching a bite from a skewer of meat that ends up in a dead man’s chest are irony on autopilot—or autocomplete. In these last minutes, Parasite’s pinprick amorality devolves into complacent, mildly askew pathos (Bong Joon-ho’s fallback position), mitigating the preceding implications by putting everything in art quotes and bougie itals. Like a marked deck of sympathy cards for all the poor “poor people.” Those poor people . . . Sigh. “Get wealth soon! Yours truly, the Concerned Audience.”

For that audience, the movie’s epilogue is so ideally symmetrical, with its carefully planted callbacks (the Morse code with the lights, an inspired conceit) and delicate communion between damaged father and son across a chasm even more imposing than prison. This wraps Parasite up in a lovely bow of melancholic sensitivity. But before he goes all pat and pats you on the head, Bong raises hopes for something near the tougher ballpark of Shohei Imamura’s The Pornographers and Vengeance Is Mine, Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel and Belle de jour, Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging, and Joseph Losey’s The Servant. I know for Bong, this middle-of-the-existential-road tack isn’t a flaw but a selling point, a way of straddling or semi-reconciling the imperatives of art and Netflix. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it works for me, too, on aesthetic string-pulling terms, at least. It tugs at the mushy, beautiful-loser programming in the brain the way Terms of Endearment worms itself into the tear ducts.

The downside of this otherwise most entertaining slice of self-induced amnesia (a fate more explicitly portrayed in his 2009 film Mother) is that it glosses over the very conditions it unearths—another nerve-jangling alarm turned into a poignant ringtone. Isn’t that the auto-repeat story of our oh so affluent society and its putative discontents? With apologies to Buñuel and the Einsteins (Bob and Al), my own Discreet Theory of Bourgeois-tivity could be written as Poverty = Leprosy (x Invisibility). The arc of Parasite confirms this formulation by giving the social lepers a little taste of daylight before hustling them back into their rightful down-and-counted-out quarters. Where they’ll serve in perpetuity as the bang-up abstractions and touching symbols they were born to be.

Parasite opens in select US theaters on October 11.