PLOT In South Korea, the members of a poor family infiltrate the lives of a rich one.
CAST Woo-sik Choi, So-dam Park, Kang-ho Song
RATED R (sexuality, language, violence)
BOTTOM LINE An imaginative comedy-thriller with darkness at its core.
Jordan Peele’s horror film from last year, “Us,” about evil doppelgängers, itself now has a doppelgänger: Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite.” Peele’s film, a class-conscious fable in which a wealthy family is overtaken by its impoverished mirror image, initially seemed like the movie of the moment. “Parasite,” however, which is built on essentially the same premise, has been hailed as the movie of the decade and is now the rare foreign-language film to be nominated for the Academy Award for best picture.
"Parasite" introduces us to the Kims, a South Korean family of four living in a subterranean apartment. They're so poor they can't afford wi-fi (a modern mark of poverty; they leech it from nearby cafes) and earn their meager income folding pizza boxes. A gift from a well-heeled friend, a heavy stone that promises wealth to its owner, works its magic when the son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-Shik) lands a job teaching English to a wealthy schoolgirl, Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso). She's part of the Park family, also a foursome, who look like the negative (or maybe the positive?) image of the Kims, living comfortably in a modernist mansion high on a hill.
This isn't a Korean Horatio Alger story – the Kims don't want to work hard, or at all. The clever daughter, Kim Ki-jung (Park So-Dam, whose mischievous eyes are among this film's best features), presents herself to the Parks as an art therapist for children; the obsequious Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho) becomes a driver for the patriarchal Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun); and Mrs. Kim (Chang Hyae-jin) replaces the Parks' loyal housekeeper (an excellent Lee Jung-eun). Finally, when the Parks go on vacation, the Kims move right in, raiding the fridge and emptying the liquor cabinet.
"Parasite" moves effortlessly between capitalist parable, horror film and situation comedy as the natures of the two families are revealed: The Kims, grasping and greedy yet unfairly stigmatized by poverty (even in their newly bought clothes, they give off an odor that can't be masked), and the Parks, harmless and well-intentioned yet coasting through life on the backs of others. Who's the parasite, then? So recognizable is this picture of society that you may forget you aren't watching an American movie. (The spell breaks now and then when Mrs. Park tosses off an English catchphrase to prove her internationalist bona-fides.)
Bong, the unfettered creative mind behind the dystopian fantasy "Snowpiercer" (2013) and the environmentalist satire "Okja" (2017), tends to cram his movies with more ideas than they can handle. It's a problem many filmmakers would kill for, but it also keeps "Parasite" from hitting its thematic nails squarely on the head. When the story reveals a surprising new layer – fans of "Us" will spot another similarity here -- "Parasite" becomes doubly entertaining and thought-provoking but, at the same time, less focused.
Regardless, something about "Parasite" has struck a chord with Western audiences, who don't normally tolerate subtitles. It's a movie from an unfamiliar part of the world that paints an uncannily familiar picture.