“It’s so metaphorical!” Kim Ki-woo exclaims early in “Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho’s new film. Ki-woo is the college-aged son of one of the two families — the impoverished Kims and the wealthy Parks — whose fates entwine with horrible and hilarious results. He uses the phrase a few times, most notably with reference to the large, decorative “landscape rock” that is a gift from a better-off friend. In the interpretation of “Parasite” that emphasizes the movie’s fairy-tale aspects, the stone brings good fortune to Ki-woo, his sister and their parents, even as, like so many magical objects, it also curses them. (Spoilers follow, for “Parasite” and other Bong movies.)
Before long, Ki-woo stops talking about metaphors. Maybe because things start getting real. He takes a job tutoring the Parks’ teenage daughter, Da-hye, and pretty soon his whole family is employed, under dubious premises and fake identities, in the Park household. His sister, pretending to be a highly trained art therapist, starts working with Da-hye’s younger brother, Da-song. The Kim patriarch, Ki-taek, replaces the chauffeur who drives Mr. Park to and from his fancy tech job. Kim Chung-sook, the mother of the clan (a former Olympic-level hammer-thrower), takes over as housekeeper.
Or maybe — and it might amount to the same thing — the Kims’ reality has turned into an unsettling allegory of modern life, and Ki-woo doesn’t see metaphors in the way that a fish doesn’t notice water. What started out as a clever scam has turned into a fable.
In South Korea, where “Parasite” is already a blockbuster (having taken in more than $70 million at the box office), it has contributed to that country’s continuing debate about economic inequality. In the United States, where similar arguments are swirling, it has begun to turn Bong from an auteur with a passionate cult following into a top-tier international filmmaker. Fifty years old, with seven features to his name — most of them available on North American streaming platforms — he combines showmanship with social awareness in a way that re-energizes the faded but nonetheless durable democratic promise of movies.
The cramped, leaky “semi-basement” apartment the Kims call home is a metaphor of sorts, and so is the spacious, modern, architecturally significant mansion where they work. The Park home in particular comes with built-in symbols, including a deep subbasement where inconvenient secrets can be stashed away, like dead bodies or hidden meanings in an Edgar Allan Poe story. And “Parasite,” which won the top prize in Cannes in May and has recently become the rare subtitled release to be mentioned as an Oscar contender beyond the foreign film category, plays out like a parable of contemporary social relations. It’s part horror film, part satire and part tragedy, conveying a sharp lesson about class struggle in South Korea and just about everywhere else.
But the houses in the film — like every office, alley, field, railroad car and precinct house in Bong’s expanding cinematic universe — are also actual physical places. And their inhabitants are anything but symbols or ciphers. Bong likes to choreograph wildly improbable chases and fights, but he doesn’t cheat at physics. A reason for the frequent comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg is the ruthless precision of his technique. But for all his love of whimsy and absurdity, he doesn’t play games with human psychology. The actions and reactions in his movies are often surprising, but they are never nonsensical. His characters have gravity, density, grace and a decent share of stupidity.
To call Bong a realist, though, would be crazy. The movie of his that first caught the attention of genre geeks on a global scale was his third feature, “The Host” (released here in 2007), about a giant, carnivorous mutant fish spreading terror along the Han River in Seoul. In 2014 came “Snowpiercer” (based on a French graphic novel), which confirmed Bong’s status as an international action auteur. A gaggle of movie stars from Hollywood and beyond (including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Song Kang Ho, the solid South Korean Everyman who has appeared in four of Bong’s movies and who plays the Kim patriarch in “Parasite”) were packed into a high-speed train zooming around an apocalyptically frozen earth. The passengers were sorted into haves and have-nots, rebels and sellouts, and their struggles were both surprising and grimly familiar.
That was followed by “Okja” (2017), an antic updating of the basic “Charlotte’s Web” material (a young farm girl fights to save the life of her beloved piglet) for an age of genetic engineering, mass media and multinational capitalism. Swinton returned, playing twin moguls, but the real stars were Ahn Seo Hyun, as the young girl, and the digitally rendered shoat whose soul was at stake in the hectic battles among scientists, executives, animal-rights activists and other motley human specimens.
In obvious ways, “Parasite” is more realistic than those films. It returns Bong to the workaday Korean settings of his first two features, the grotesque comedy “Barking Dogs Never Bite” and the detective drama “Memories of Murder,” and also of “Mother,” his masterpiece (released here in 2010) about a woman whose mentally challenged adult son is accused of killing a schoolgirl. “Parasite” is more noir than science fiction, farcical until it turns melodramatic.
But to sort Bong’s work by genre or style is to miss both its originality and consistency. His movies are bold and bright, infused with rich colors and emphatic performances. They are funny, suspenseful and punctuated by kinetic sequences that can make even jaded multiplex-potatoes sit up and gasp. There are at least a half-dozen such moments in “Parasite,” perhaps the most thrilling of which involves three people hiding under a living-room coffee table while another camps out in a tent in the backyard.
At the same time, his movies are dark and subtle, burrowing deep into sticky ethical problems and hot zones of social dysfunction. You could say that he uses blockbuster means to advance art-house ends. You could also say the opposite. His real achievement, though, is to scramble such facile distinctions, and a host of others as well.
His stories are often tragic, but the mood tends to be more exuberant than somber, an emotional effect that can be hard to describe. The full awfulness of human beings and their circumstances is on vivid display: venality, vanity, deception and outright cruelty. But the aim isn’t mockery or glib sensationalism, or the routine fusion of the laughable and the grotesque that has been a staple of Hollywood cool since the mid-1990s. The most shocking thing about Bong’s films might be their sincerity, the warm humanism that flickers through the chronicles of spite, sloth and self-delusion.
The flickers are sometimes faint. In Bong’s debut feature, “Barking Dogs Never Bite” (2000), the humanism is all but buried in a gruesome, urban-legend-inflected conceit. A beleaguered graduate student, desperate to become a professor — an advancement that depends on his ability to come up with a large bribe for a senior figure in his field — is tormented by the barking of a neighbor’s dog. Since he lives in a vast, impersonal apartment block (the first of Bong’s metaphorical architectural spaces), he can’t identify the offending creature. The wrong dog ends up dying, more than once, and being eaten by a janitor with a taste for stewed canine flesh. Meanwhile the student’s marriage starts to crumble.
A measure of redemption — or at least a twinkle of mischief, innocence and decency — arrives via a subplot concerning a young woman in the building, and her friend, who works in a convenience store. They represent archetypal Bong characters: socially marginal, loyal to each other, but not necessarily heroic or noble by virtue of their poverty. Bong’s sense of class solidarity, which threads through every one of his movies, doesn’t involve romanticizing the people on the losing end of an increasingly ruthless economic competition.
The Kims in “Parasite” aren’t necessarily nicer, more loving or more honest than the bourgeois Parks. The small-town police officers in “Memories of Murder” are hardly pillars of virtue. The snack vendor played by Song in “The Host,” who enlists his father and his siblings in a valiant crusade to save his daughter from the monster, is a bit of an oaf. The mother in “Mother,” who sells herbs and practices acupuncture without a license, pushes maternal devotion to the point of homicide.
To sentimentalize or idealize any of these people would not only be a form of condescension. It would strip their stories of dramatic and moral interest, making them less disturbing, and also a lot less fun. The pleasure and the discomfort can’t be separated. We are watching players compete in a rigged game with potentially mortal stakes and unreliable referees. Institutions — schools, companies, governments — are comically and also lethally useless. There is no legitimate authority, only raw power. Family connections are the only bonds that count, but families are a mess. The only answer is a kind of wily resourcefulness, an on-the-fly problem-solving knack that can deliver at best small, local victories. That those can be satisfying is a tribute to Bong’s own wily resourcefulness and also to his radical compassion.
What makes “Parasite” the movie of the year — what might make Bong the filmmaker of the century — is the way it succeeds in being at once fantastical and true to life, intensely metaphorical and devastatingly concrete.
There doesn’t seem to be much distance, in other words, between the dire futures projected in “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” — nightmares of technology and greed run amok — and the class-specific domestic spaces of “Parasite,” “Mother” and “Memories of Murder.” A much-remarked-on feature of human existence at the moment is how dystopian it feels, as some of the most extreme and alarming fantasies of fiction reappear as newsfeed banalities. Fires and hurricanes feel less like symbols than signals, evidence of a disaster that’s already here rather than omens of impending catastrophe. Monsters walk among us. Corruption is normal. Trust, outside a narrow circle of friends or kin, is unthinkable. Whether we know it or not, it’s Bong’s world we’re living in. Literally.
Where to Watch Bong’s Films
“Parasite”: In theaters now.
“Okja”: Stream it on Netflix.
“Snowpiercer”: Stream it on Netflix; buy or rent it on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon and YouTube.
“Mother”: Buy or rent it on iTunes, Amazon and Vudu.
“The Host”: Buy or rent it on iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.
“Memories of Murder”: Buy or rent it on iTunes and YouTube.
“Barking Dogs Never Bite”: Buy or rent it on iTunes.
Top Art: Associated Press (Bong); Magnolia Pictures (“Mother”); Netflix (“Okja”); Radius-TWC (“Snowpiercer”); CJ ENM Corporation, Barunson E&A and Neon (“Parasite”)