Basements are a recurring motif in the cinema of Bong Joon-ho. From the tunnels running below the apartment building of Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), to the torture chambers in Memories of Murder (2003) and Okja (2017), to the monster’s lair in The Host (2006), these underground spaces are where society keeps its most sordid secrets locked up and out of sight, only to have them resurface with a vengeance. Bong greatly expands the subterranean metaphor in Parasite, which looks at the culture of underground living in Seoul–a literal lower class forced by economic necessity to live in basements or semi-basements–to deliver a withering assessment of the social stratification in his native South Korea.
The first of the two families in Parasite belongs to this lower class. Father Ki-Taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin) and their adult children Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-sik) and Ki-Jung (Park So Dam) are introduced as they scramble through their semi-basement apartment trying to find an unprotected WiFi network to connect to, eventually succeeding by sitting perched atop their toilet. They eke out a living by folding pizza boxes for a delivery service until one day a friend of Ki-Woo’s hooks him up with a job giving private English lessons to the daughter of an upper-class family, the Parks.
Bong has never strived for subtlety in his allegories–in fact, he even has Ki-Woo repeatedly say “this is so metaphorical!”, lest anyone should fail to pick up on the film’s overt symbolism–and he presents the Parks as the perfect mirror image of Ki-Woo’s family. Also a foursome, they live in a stunning mansion in the rich part of town. DP Hong Kyung Pyo gets a lot of mileage out of the house’s modernist aesthetic, photographing the rectilinear interiors and designer furniture in stark frontal shots and creeping dollies to accentuate the contrast between the Parks’ immaculate living situation and the cramped, cockroach-infested reality of the semi-basement.
Ki-Woo is instantly smitten by the extreme luxury and when he learns that Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-Jeong) believes her young son to be an artistic prodigy, he cons her into also hiring Ki-Jung, pretending that she’s a highly in-demand art tutor while hiding the fact that she’s his sister. It doesn’t take long before the siblings come up with ways to get the Parks’ chauffeur and housemaid fired and replaced with their parents, effectively pulling off a home invasion. Their improbably intricate and very funny schemes are electrifying in their execution, especially the one to get rid of the housemaid, which Bong orchestrates as a complex composite set-piece accompanied by overdramatic orchestral music and lots of slow-motion as if he were shooting a heist movie.
In the press notes to Parasite, Bong urges reviewers not to spoil future the enjoyment of future audiences by revealing what happens next. This somewhat curtails the possible scope of analysis, given that the above only describes the first half of the narrative and excludes a significant development that veers the film into whole different territory. But fair enough. Suffice it to say that with the terrific Parasite, Bong has crafted an angry, genre-inflected social allegory that in many ways functions as a Korean analog to Jordan Peele’s Us. A far superior craftsman than Peele, Bong is perhaps the contemporary master of entertaining, intelligent and resolutely political cinema. In our age of assembly line blockbusters, he’s a veritable treasure.
Parasite premiered at Cannes Film Festival and will be released by NEON on October 11.