The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Class warfare is on full display in director Bong Joon-ho’s provocative ‘Parasite’

The Kim family (From left: Choi Woo-shik Choi, Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin and Park So-dam) in “Parasite.” (Neon/CJ Entertainment)
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(4 stars)

Director Bong Joon-Ho’s outstanding body of work has long been defined by the theme of pervasive institutions. The South Korean filmmaker’s 2003 breakout, “Memories of Murder,” tackled the incompetence of policing; his creature flicks “The Host” and “Okja” grappled with the corrupting influence of outsiders; and “Snowpiercer” took a starkly dystopian look at the underclass’s inability to fight back against the forces of capitalism.

Each of his films is remarkable in its own way, as the director sheds light on heady issues by bending the medium of genre film to his will. With “Parasite,” Bong’s finest work to date, the 50-year-old director clearly articulates a throughline that has been present in all his previous work: there’s no war but the class war.

In his latest work, Bong blends a con-man story with a tale of suspense, to uproarious and enlightening effect. The film follows the working-class Kim family, whose cramped basement apartment catches more clouds of fumigation than rays of sunshine. Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the son, is referred by a friend to tutor the daughter of the wealthy Park family.

When Ki-woo arrives at their stunning estate — designed, we are told, by a famous architect, and created, in part, on a soundstage and via digital wizardry — his eyes light up with envy at everything he and his family don’t have. It’s the perfect construction for Bong to tear apart, brick by brick.

Gradually, Ki-woo replaces the Park family’s household staff, job by job, with members of his own family, most notably his father, Ki-taek (expertly played by the filmmaker’s longtime muse Song Kang-ho), who epitomizes a working class schlub. Once his family is set in place, Ki-taek tests the limits of how just much the Parks can be manipulated without noticing they’ve been had.

The first half of the film can be downright hilarious — if you enjoy buffoonery at the expense of the rich. It’s not that the Parks are that unlikable; they are easy marks because they are so insulated by their wealth and privilege in society that they simply couldn’t know any better.

There’s a deliberate ambiguity in the title. Certainly the Kims are parasitic when they overtake the Park household: Dad acts as chauffeur; sister becomes the art tutor for the hyperactive son; and the mother displaces the longtime housekeeper. But the Parks are also, in a way, leeches, using the hired help to fill the nurturing and emotional roles that they can’t — or won’t. It’s a zero-sum game.

The problem, the film argues, is that we accept these things as normal. The Kims have no other option but to band together to plot their next opportunity; it’s the only way they can achieve society’s idea of respectability. The American Dream, in other words, isn’t exclusively American.

In the second half of the movie Bong twists his knife so deeply into this festering wound of class warfare that you begin to wonder if there can be any heroes in this story at all. Where the film lands on this train of thought is fully earned, even if the fervor with which Bong gets to that point threatens to sweep you away at times.

Much like the Kims, a viewer can get lulled into luxuriating in the superficial details of the film. But it’s what’s lurking below the surface that will stay with you long after the movie is over.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong language, some violence and sexuality. In Korean with subtitles. 132 minutes.