Rich people are not having fun in the movies this year.
It’s part of a larger cultural moment, of course. Occupy Wall Street lined up the ball a few years back in the U.S.; Democratic presidential hopefuls with wealth-tax plans are next up at bat. But film historians in particular will look at 2019 and say, “They were really angry about income inequality, weren’t they?” Look at “Ready Or Not,” “Hustlers” or “Shoplifters” for a few recent examples of regular people sticking it to the folks with deep pockets and no remorse. There’s also murder mystery “Knives Out,” which closed out Austin’ Fantastic Fest last month and hits theaters this fall.
But when it comes to the upstairs/downstairs divide, “Parasite” has them all beat.
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The highly anticipated new film from South Korean director Bong Joon Ho is a stylish, exquisite knife to the heart of capitalism’s cruelties. It made its Texas premiere at Fantastic Fest on Sept. 27 and is now in theaters.
The Kim family — son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam, getting the biggest laughs), father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) — live in a squalid, semi-underground apartment. They don’t have any hesitation about catching a stray Wi-Fi signal from upstairs or taking advantage of street fumigation via an open window. The family’s slick, funny, charming because they have to be. It’s the only way they get by in a society where 500 university graduates apply every time a security guard job opens.
Ki-woo, posing as university student, takes over his friend’s job as an English tutor in the wealthy Park household. The mistress of the house, Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong, delightful) is a perfectly poised housewife always one misplaced hair away from utter panic. Her lap dogs have more chill. She glides around the family’s massive home, which is an angular marvel of glittering glass and steel, warm wood and light. The efficient housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun), keeps things running.
Seeing the job as another hustle to survive, Ki-woo soon deploys his signature charm on the lady of the house. It would be a shame to spoil much of what happens next, but the whole Kim family is soon taking advantage of the Parks’ wealth and trust. Things for the struggling family are good for the first time — and then things become exponentially very not good. And very bloody.
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Bong, a master if there ever was one, is beloved for imaginative, brutal beauties like “Snowpiercer” and “The Host.” Those movies are also class conflicts, but in sci-fi Trojan horses. Despite its sense of unease and elegant flourishes of strangeness, “Parasite” doesn’t dip into the fantastical. Its ugliness is firmly in the real. Before the screening at Fantastic Fest, Bong told the audience, “I hope this film bites you and the remnants stay with you.”
The first half of this perfectly paced marvel feels like an Oscar Wilde comedy of manners. Witty commoners transcend their station through tricks played upon their dull-minded betters. Then it all sharply turns on a dark, stomach-churning twist of much unpleasantness. The hands of the clock spin ever quicker as Bong sends his rich and poor characters into a violent, claustrophobic hell. There are secret codes, symbols wielded as weapons, ghost stories come to life and an anxiety-inducing bowl of noodles.
As for the title, it’s a precise description of the story’s dynamics. In a couple cases, it turns out to be deliciously, deliriously literal. As Bong pointed out in the post-screening Q&A at Fantastic Fest, it would be a mistake to think that “Parasite” refers only to a poor family siphoning off of a rich one. The movie’s wealthy characters would be helpless without the labor — physical and emotional — of helpers both seen and invisible.
Every performer is on their A-game. Jo, in particular, carries the weight of “Parasite’s” righteous acidity on her silk-draped shoulders. She is every indulgence, every appearance to be kept up with, every bank-rolled caprice, every ignorantly patronizing good intention. And yet, in Jo’s hands, Mrs. Park earns your goodwill. Even that is an evil of wealth in this film. Ki-woo tells his mother that his employer is rich but still nice. No, Chung-sook corrects him, she’s nice because she’s rich: “Money is an iron.”
You think you’re making your own choices in life? That’s cute. There is nothing that money does not corrupt, “Parasite” says — even morality.
This review was originally published during Fantastic Fest 2019 and was updated Oct. 24, 2019.