The first thing you see in Bong Joon Ho's "Parasite," a thriller of extraordinary cunning and emotional force, is an upper window in a tiny underground apartment.
From this high, narrow vantage the Kims, a resilient family of four, peer onto a grubby Seoul street strewn with garbage bags and electrical wires -- an ugly view made worse by a drunk who often turns up to relieve himself right outside. Sometime later the Kims will stand before a much larger window, as big and beautiful as a cinema screen, in an enormous house with a gorgeous sunlit garden. It's not just a different view; it's a different world.
From the outset of this deviously entertaining movie, which recently became the first South Korean film to win the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes, every detail of the Kims' hardscrabble existence is on blunt display. In an early scene, high school graduate Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) and his sister, Ki-jung (Park So Dam), scurry around their cramped bathroom with their phones held aloft, hunting for a free Wi-Fi signal. You register the clutter of their apartment with its discarded clothes, mildewed tiles and skittering stinkbugs. You watch the Kims fold and assemble pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant, the closest any of them has recently come to landing a job.
But you also notice the close bonds between brother and sister, as well as the easy rapport they share with their boisterous father, Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho), and sharp-witted mother, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin). Living together in close quarters has bred in them a matter-of-fact intimacy and a wily self-sufficiency.
Bong has never been one to ennoble or romanticize his characters' poverty, but he does invest them with a terrific rooting interest. "Parasite," with its tough, unsentimental view of people doing what they must to survive, initially suggests an evil twin to "Shoplifters," Hirokazu Kore-eda's lovely drama about a family of petty thieves (which, incidentally, won the Palme last year).
But the movie swiftly establishes its own unpredictable agenda not long after Ki-woo inherits an English tutoring job from a college-student friend (Park Seo Joon). The pupil in question is an upper-class teenage girl, Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso), and their lessons will take place in the gated modernist fortress she calls home. Ki-woo just barely manages to keep a lid on his awe the first time the Parks' formidable housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung Eun), ushers him inside. Designed and formerly inhabited by a famous architect, the house is a masterwork of real-estate pornography with its beige walls, marble floors and vast, cavernous spaces.
parasite-Mr Park Sun-kyun Lee and Yeon-kyo Park Yeo-jeong Jo in Parasite -- rgb.jpg
Lee Sun Kyun and Cho Yeo Jeong in the movie "Parasite."(Neon/CJ Entertainment)
But it is also a warren of secrets, full of telling details that Bong, a superb storyteller and a master of camera movement, unwraps with elegance and economy. (The superb cinematography is by Hong Kyung Pyo.) He calls your attention to the toy arrows fired by Da-hye's younger brother, Da-song (Jung Hyeon Jun), and also to a framed magazine article about her father, Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun), a millionaire tech titan. But no one embodies the family's glossy pretensions more nakedly than Dong-ik's wife, Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong), whether she's idly stroking one of the family's three dogs or peppering her everyday speech with English affectations.
Yeon-kyo's breezy entitlement hides a naive, nervous streak, and Cho's performance suggests just how gullible and vulnerable the very rich can be behind their high-tech security systems. When Yeon-kyo lets drop that her mischief-making young son is in need of an art tutor, Ki-woo, thinking fast, suggests a distant acquaintance for the job -- and, within days, has succeeded in installing his sister in the house as well. Ki-jung, the most intuitive grifter in a family full of them, shows up with a coolly professional demeanor and a mouth full of therapeutic gobbledygook. (She got it all from Google, she later announces to her family's amusement.)