In all its delicious cruelty and ingenuity, Bong Joon-ho’s satirical suspense thriller Parasite has arrived in the UK from Korea, having won the Palme d’Or in Cannes last year and dominated the connoisseur conversation from then on – at the expense, rightly or wrongly, of every other non-English-language film.
This really is a horribly fascinating film, brilliantly written, superbly furnished and designed, with a glorious ensemble cast put to work in an elegantly plotted nightmare. Its narrative engine hums with the luxurious smoothness of the Mercedes-Benz that one character is fatefully given the chance to drive. In my original review from Cannes, I wondered if the narrative was a little over-extended, but, on a second viewing, I can see how that amplitude of detail is what gives the film its flavour.
Parasite is a scabrous black comedy-slash-farce that resonates beyond its generic limits – a movie about status envy, aspiration, materialism, the patriarchal family unit and the idea of having (or leasing) servants. More than this, it is about the suppressed horror of the overclass for its underlings and its morbid distaste for the smell of people who have to use public transport. The satirical reflex extends to a vision of South and North Korea living together in paranoid, resentful intimacy, and its climax is precipitated by an almost Biblical climate-emergency catastrophe.
The parasites in question are a dodgy unemployed family living together in a scuzzy, stinky basement flat, with the teenage son and daughter periodically roaming around, holding their smartphones up to the ceiling to pinch the non-password-protected wifi of neighbours and nearby businesses. The dad is Ki-taek (a lovely performance from veteran player Song Kang-ho), a laidback loafer married to former track star Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin). The son is Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), a shiftless young guy who has flunked the university entrance exams; and the daughter is Ki-jung (Park So-dam), a smart, cool customer with an artistic gift for web-based fraud.
One summer, by posing as a college student, Ki-woo gets the chance to tutor the teenage daughter of a very rich family in a spectacularly grand modernist house, owned by business high-flier Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyun). Ki-woo’s student is the demure Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), whose instant crush on him is something Ki-woo does nothing to discourage. The somewhat distraite mistress of the house, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), asks if this smart young man might also recommend an art tutor for Da-hye’s negligibly talented kid brother Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun). He passes off his sister as the cousin of a friend and her brazen grifter-sense of when and how to be confident, and even arrogant, bags her the job.
Soon, these wicked kids have cunningly contrived to get the family chauffeur fired and replaced with their dad. They then dislodge the housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun) and install their placidly smiling mum. A whole family of cuckoos in a brand new nest, pretending to be strangers to each other. But then the artless little kid points out that they all smell alike – and they smell of poor people.
Parasite is a movie that taps into a rich cinematic tradition of unreliable servants with an intimate knowledge of their employers, an intimacy that easily, and inevitably, congeals into hostility. Joseph Losey’s The Servant invokes a comparable transgression, nightmarishly amplified here by the subterfuge and by the sheer numbers of people getting up close and personal.
Parasite is also in a Korean tradition of pictures such as Kim Ki-young’s classic thriller The Housemaid from 1960, remade in 2010 by Im Sang-soo, and also Park Chan-wook’s servant-class con-trick drama, The Handmaiden. A second viewing of this film also put me in mind of the claustrophobic horror in Park’s Oldboy.
And there is something else, too. The Park family love to play Handel on the music system in their lovely home – the Spietati, io vi giurai aria from his opera Rodelinde. It is so expansive, so airy, caressingly sumptuous and wealthy, and not a million miles from the Care selve arioso from Handel’s Atalanta – listened to by the smug wealthy couple in Michael Haneke’s home-invasion horror Funny Games, before their own appointment with dark destiny.
The home invaders here gaze on their super-rich employers and see themselves in a distorting mirror that pitilessly reveals to them how wretched they are and shows them what could and should be theirs. It is almost a supernatural or sci-fi story: the invasion of the lifestyle snatchers. Parasite gets its toxic tendrils into your skin.
• Parasite is released in the UK on 7 February.