The Air Up There
by Chris Wisniewski

Dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, NEON

Initially, you might notice the hanging socks. They appear in the foreground of Parasite’s opening shot, dangling from a ceiling fixture. As the image remains static your attentions might turn to the activity outside, above on street level, visible through a window. The director and co-writer, Bong Joon-ho, uses the shot to show us a random alleyway in Seoul, somewhere up over this shabby room in which we find ourselves, decorated as it is with dirty socks. The camera then moves down to the living space of the Kim family as they grapple with the day’s newest indignity—their upstairs neighbors have password protected their WiFi. The Kims aren’t connected. Their only option is to seek higher ground, to raise their phones to the ceiling, past the putrid socks and over the toilet that sits perched on a pedestal. Looking for a signal that will connect them from their cramped living space—we can only imagine how it might smell—they scramble to reach the world above.

Though he’s been inconsistent, Bong is an indisputably brilliant filmmaker who specializes in socially engaged genre pictures that package trenchant, biting critique as thrilling entertainment. So it is with Parasite, his audacious, funny, and upsetting new movie. Here, he uses his opening sequence to tell us everything we need to know about what he is about to do. The Kims are desperate and destitute, part of the substrata of Korean economic and social life. Shortly after they lose their signal, a cloud of fumigation smoke wafts into the apartment. Their apartment is infested with bugs, so the treatment might help remediate one problem. Still, what must it do to a person to breathe that gas, which infiltrates the Kims’ living space with no warning?

The movie uses the initial play between the Kims’ subterranean existence and the world above to introduce a metaphor Bong will turn over, mine, invert, and reprise repeatedly throughout its two-hour running time. Bong makes it clear from the film’s opening minutes that this is a movie about class. But what that means—and how that plays out through the Kims’ efforts to achieve a higher station—is never settled, perhaps, until the last shot. Just as Lee Chang-dong’s Burning overtly delved into issues of inequality, alienation, masculinity, and violence as they are experienced in contemporary Korean life without seeming too allegorical or on the nose, Parasite traffics in the same concepts with a narrative and aesthetic invention that makes ideas that might otherwise seem telegraphed feel decipherable only upon contemplation of it as a complete, fully realized work.

Parasite may be Bong’s most successful and unexpected film since Mother. This is not intended as empty praise, but rather an explanation for why it would do a reader a disservice to give away too many of the movie’s storytelling pleasures through synopsis. As it opens, the Kims earn cash by freelancing for a local pizza chain assembling boxes. Scrounging for every penny, the Kims’ teenage son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) lowers himself to haggling with the restaurant’s manager for a permanent post. This doesn’t satisfy his ambitions. Subsequently, when Ki-woo is offered a professional opportunity through a friend that requires a bit of personal misrepresentation, he quickly rationalizes away the dishonesty it entails. As Ki-woo explains to his father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), justifying his initially forgery, he sees the manipulation he engages in less as a lie than an acceleration—representing himself as having attained a certain status that he’ll reach eventually, though he hasn’t yet. In other words, he may be lying about where he is, but not who he is. Possibly, though, he is also lying to himself.

With this act of fraud, Ki-woo wedges his way into the lives of the Parks, a wealthy Seoul family that is no more emotionally stable than the Kims despite their comparative privilege. Handsome Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) has earned a fortune, but his kind, naïve wife Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong) moves through life at such a level of remove and disaffection that her maid (a wonderful Lee Jeong-eun) needs to clap in her face to get her attention. Their two children are faring no better: their teenage daughter engages neither with her studies nor her surroundings, instead fixating on Ki-woo as a romantic interest; their young son, meanwhile, harbors trauma from an early age that he expresses through an obsession with Native Americans and a distressing art practice that his mother actually celebrates. The Parks are Bong’s foil for the Kims, the upstairs to their downstairs. Yet while it is clear why the Kims might want their home and their things, it is less evident that their lives deserve envy.

Seeing in the Parks an opportunity for social ascendency, Ki-woo takes advantage of every opportunity his new employers give him to infiltrate their lives. His initial success sets off a series of events through which Ki-taek, as well as his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), similarly insinuate themselves into advantageous situations with this wealthy family under false pretenses. Deftly, Bong never invites judgment of the Kims, nor does he provide space for judgment of the Parks. By assuming an authorly impartiality, Bong brings the ideas his movie teases out to the fore. We aren’t asked to take a position on the Kims’ decision making. Instead, we’re forced to grapple with why they do what they do and what it tells us about the urgent issues with which the movie engages. It would be much easier to valorize the Kims as class warriors or demonize them as liars. Bong does neither. “It is so metaphorical,” Ki-woo exclaims of a gift given to him by a friend. It’s a joke, because Bong knows that we are thinking the same thing about his movie. His brilliance lies in making us realize that we never quite have full access to the metaphor. We know we should be reading the film as a study of irreconcilable social division and its effect, but we are never told how to read it.

So: who is the parasite? What is the malady? The movie gives ample evidence for arguing that the rich feed off the labor of the poor, that they exploit and judge those who do the real work that makes their lives possible. It also largely aligns itself with the other perspective, presenting the Kims and the other working-class characters that populate the movie as living off the largesse of the wealthy. If the Kims’ almost subhuman status wasn’t clear in the early fumigation sequence, at one point, Bong actually reduces them to scurrying across a floor in the middle of the night like cockroaches. But, is this meant to make us see them as parasitic, or to critique this notion? The narrative turns in Parasite’s second half give evidence for both readings.

Co-written by Bong and Han Jin Won and swiftly paced by editor Yang Jinmo, Parasite may be Bong’s most elegant contraption yet. Its first half unfolds as an elaborate, funny, and constantly surprising setup. In its second half, it careens with agonizing inexorability, over a twenty-four-hour period, toward a reckoning. Minute to minute, this makes for a delightfully fun watch, a master-class in genre filmmaking. Don’t be fooled. As the Kims’ dangerous gambit unfolds, every major character does something that is morally repugnant, with shocking consequence. Parasite is a deadly serious movie, and by the time he ends it, with a melancholic image that deliberately evokes his opening, Bong reveals he has more sinister designs on his characters—and his viewers—than it initially appears. Like any potent virus—or, perhaps, like the foul odor of dirty socks hanging from a ceiling fixture (as Ki-woo would say, “It’s so metaphorical!”)—Parasite’s effect lingers.