It's hard to talk about why the South Korean phenomenon "Parasite" has captured the imagination of a broad international film audience without talking about "Joker," the other conspicuous class-warfare experiment in terror of the moment.
They're night and day in terms of, well, everything: wit, emotional sophistication, filmmaking rigor, mastery of tonal shifts. The branding helps, of course, but something beyond comic-book familiarity has turned "Joker," with its willfully sloppy combination of brutal pathos and wormy vigilante spirit, into a thing _ a thing connecting with millions of people. It's a movie about an endlessly abused victim whose existence cries out for a miracle, and for a folk-hero transformation into a morally justified serial killer superstar. Joaquin Phoenix acts the living hell out of it, though if Gertrude Stein were alive she'd probably say there's no "it" in it.
"Parasite" has connected with millions, too, which is more surprising. It's a massive hit in its native South Korea and elsewhere, and the co-writer and director Bong Joon-ho commands a willing, growing fan base here in America. The filmmaker, one of the great contemporary commercial artists in any medium, has made two films in English ("Snowpiercer," the juicy anti-capitalist allegory, and "Okja," the strongest cinematic argument for vegetarianism since "Babe." But for now his finest work in a variety of genres _ all his films traffic in a variety of genres, within a single film _ sticks closer culturally to home, and to the bone.
In 2006 Bong made a terrific monster movie, "The Host." "Parasite" feeds on that earlier picture's themes of societal callousness. This one's about people, and money, but it too contains subterranean secrets. And it too is terrific.
The first shot sets the scene. In a precise widescreen composition, we're looking out of the street-level window of a tiny apartment in Seoul, occupied by the Kim family. A drunk urinates on the pavement. Life isn't easy for the Kims. Inside the apartment, the clever forger daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and her mild-mannered brother Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) brandish their cellphones, seeking out some stray neighborhood Wi-Fi in various corners of the flat.
The Kims get by folding cardboard pizza boxes for a living. Father Ki-taek (played by Bong veteran Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) wonder if that's all there is. Their luck, joined with their cunning, provides the answer. What they lack in material possessions and blithe privilege, the family soon acquires in "Parasite."
A friend of the son's has been working as a tutor for a wealthy Seoul family. The family proves gullible: At Ki-woo's friend's urging, and with the friend away for extended travels, Ki-woo fakes his way into the role of replacement tutor for the teenage daughter of the Park family.
Working in sleek, clinical luxury proves mighty appealing. In short order all the Kims find employment by deceptive means in the Park household. Dad (Song Kang Ho) becomes the trusted chauffeur of Mr. Park (Lee Sun Kyun, elegantly condescending); Mother (Chang Hyae Jin) takes the place of the Parks' longtime housekeeper (Lee Jung Eun, a wonderful two-sided performance); daughter fills the role of the unruly Park boy's visual arts tutor/counselor. Easy peasy, she says: "I Googled 'art therapy' and ad-libbed the rest."
It's a pleasure watching the story's home-invasion con click into place. The first half of "Parasite" carefully unrolls the rug Bong then pulls out from under the audience. Avoiding spoilage here, but it's fair game to say the Kim family pays for its heartless stratagems, a comeuppance tipped by the reappearance of a character pushed out of the narrative (and the Park home) earlier on. When the Parks go away on a camping trip, the drunken revels and smashed glassware leads the Park clan to a discovery that leads to increasingly sinister and bloody doings.
The screenplay co-written by Bong and Han Jin-won stays clearly, even doggedly on-point in its themes of class resentment and economic warfare. The shift into varying suspense thriller guises, and finally into disarming depths of feeling, works like magic, both inevitable and unpredictable. I'm not sure how Bong pulled it off. Then again, all his movies make similar transitions; the worlds he creates live and breathe, even when the plot machinations remain carefully calibrated to unsettle.
Oh, and there's a local angle! The fake art instructor's alter ego is "Jessica from Chicago," an Illinois State University graduate. It's one of many such scams being run by the Kims, exploiting the Parks for all they're worth, while the Park family follows its own code of blinkered bourgeois behavior. Like Jordan Peele's "Get Out," Bong's "Parasite" expresses consequential ideas that matter to the filmmaker about the way we live today, and the prejudice and malice we create for ourselves and others. The best social satires, like this one, dwell in the underworld where the sinister, the sobering and the bitterly funny swirl in the same stream of consciousness.
There's a reason, in other words, people want to see what happens in "Parasite," and how. And then talk about it.