Although not everyone outside of the United Kingdom is guaranteed to have heard of the 1970’s TV show Upstairs, Downstairs, both its title and the metaphorical meaning it carries have made a lasting impression on pop culture over the past fifty or so years. Thanks in part to the American fascination with Downton Abbey, today’s media consumers are more or less familiar with the concept of “upstairs, downstairs” — wealthy, tuxedo or ballroom gown-wearing estate-owners and their servants who live below them — as a symbol of class and social division. It’s upon this voguish metaphor that Parasite plays. But rather than exploring it through period costume dramatics, Bong Joon Ho’s latest firework transplants this allegory into contemporary Korea, mixing up a sharp cocktail of acidic satire, acerbic wit and more than a dash of suspense.
Like most potent beverages, Parasite is best consumed ice-cold—that is, best watched knowing as little as possible about its plot. What’s acceptable to reveal, and what the film’s admittedly sly trailer already tells us, is the bare bones of the premise. We open on a family chasing the last vestiges of Wi-Fi signal around the nooks and crannies of their cramped basement apartment. These are the Kims, and the free Wi-Fi isn’t theirs. They’re pretty much penniless, scrounging a living folding pizza boxes (with varying levels of skill) for a local delivery service. They all rejoice, then, when youngster Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) happens upon a golden ticket: the opportunity to take over as the English tutor for the daughter of the moneyed Parks. With a touch of grifting from his sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), he gets the job… and sets the two families on a collision course.
Parasite sits at the crux of social commentary and bracing thrills, an unconventional fusion of Dickens and The Silence of the Lambs. The spirit of Mr. Micawber lives on in Kim family patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), with his resourcefulness and boundless optimism, and there’s something undeniably Hannibal Lecter-ish about the Parks, as if their dispassionate tone and stiff poise hide something truly frightening, or perhaps even insane. There’s no dead air in Bong Joon Ho’s tightly-plotted screenplay, which moves from scene to scene with a fast yet intentional pace. Even the film’s more protracted sequences boast a bed of bubbling tension. It’s thrilling to discover the meticulously-constructed Jenga tower of narrative bricks that Bong has built — always teetering yet never collapsing, held together by the Hitchcockian tenet of suspense storytelling: imply something bad will happen, then draw out the wait.
It’s not all metaphorical messages and exhilarating tension in Parasite, though. One of Bong Joon Ho’s greatest talents as a director is his ability to traverse genre; it would be impossible to put the film in a box. You’ll laugh as well as audibly gasp, often within the same scene. And prepare to have your heartstrings tugged — juggling so many elements, Parasite would risk forgetting the human element of its story if not for Bong’s empathy for his characters. They all feel like true individuals caught in an unexpected whirlwind, and its this anchor that allows the film to take the narrative risks that it does. There’s an inkling of the clandestine to the bold angles and gliding movements of the camera, and the music often reaches an operatic fever pitch. It’s all in service of a twisty, gripping story, and it’s a delight to watch it unravel.