It's not just your imagination. A sizeable number of this year's new movies — aside from juvie spectacles and special-effects extravaganzas — have decided to concern themselves with matters of social class, as in: class divides, class resentments, and that reliable film favorite, out-and-out class warfare. South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho, the creator of Snowpiercer and Okja, takes his own intricately calibrated view of the subject in Parasite, a tale of two families.
The four members of the Kim family live in a messy basement flat in a hard-scrabble neighborhood, subsisting by any means they can devise. When we first meet them they're busy folding cardboard pizza delivery boxes and worrying about their Wi-Fi connections. But when twentysomething Kim Ki-woo (played by Choi Woo-sik) makes an impromptu pitch to give private English lessons at the opulent, futuristic home of the Park family, new and exciting vistas open up for the hustlers.
After a hurried interview with Park Yeon-kyo, the easily distracted matron (in a splendid performance by actor Jo Yeo-jeong), the ambitious Ki-woo is assigned to tutor the Parks' teenage daughter. They promptly fall in love. Before long, the Kims manage to install their surly patriarch Kim Ki-taek (veteran player Song Kang-ho) as the Parks' chauffeur; their attractive daughter Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam) as an "art therapist" for the rich family's young son; and grumpy matriarch Kim Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) as the mansion's housekeeper. The pay is great and the perks are yummy. Of course, getting these new jobs sometimes involves elbowing the previous employee out of the way, but the Kims are well-drilled in the dark arts of subterfuge. They're pulling off a full-family confidence scheme.
Things do not go as planned. Businessman Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), head of the well-heeled family, is only marginally more street-smart than his ditzy wife, a caricature of nouveau-riche daffiness. The only Park who's really onto something is the little boy (Jung Hyun-jun), who notices that all these new people in his parents' household have the same distinctive smell. Daddy Dong-ik notices the same thing — the telltale odor is enough to make him roll down the window of the Mercedes when Ki-taek is driving him around. And then there's situation of the discarded former housekeeper (Lee Jeong-eun). And the strange sounds coming from the basement.
Filmmaker Bong can't resist having fun with the discomfiture between the crafty have-nots and their oblivious benefactors, even though he and co-screenwriter Jin Won-han lay on the ironic sight gags a tad too thickly. Bong's directorial filmography alternates uneasily between gaudy, faintly silly sci-fi yarns such as his 2006 water-monster show The Host, and cooler, no less carefully constructed psychological thrillers, of which the village murder mystery Mother (2009) is a prime example. In common with the work of fellow Korean helmer Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, Stoker, Old Boy), Bong habitually reaches for shock cuts and lickety-split mayhem, typically late in the movie, to spice up his stories. Park and Bong immediately became the darlings of an international fan-boy cult more than ten years ago, and they're still concocting sensational, squirm-producing denouements. For both auteurs, sudden violence is the whipped cream on the sundae of subdued Korean-style melodrama.
Before Bong's frantic farce takes its turn into something more disturbing, there's plenty to admire. As the hapless matron, actor Jo brings some depth to her lampoon-ish role, as does Song's perturbed chauffeur, in a slow burn brought to explosive boil over the guaranteed-to-offend implied question from the mouth of the film's youngest character: Do poor folks smell worse than rich folks? They very well might, if the sewers back up in the low-lying parts of town where the poor folks live. Or when the servants are forced to spend the night hiding under a coffee table while the masters unwittingly add up their faults, not realizing the help is listening nearby, unnoticed. Parasite is an appropriately enigmatic title for a satire that cuts both ways. Which is worse, a rich fool or a poor trickster? No answers here, just provocative entertainment.