Parasite review: this blood-spattered Palme d'Or winner will get under your skin

Robbie Collin
Parasite screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival

Dir: Bong Joon-ho. Cast: Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin. Cert TBC, 131 mins.

Even the grandest house is only as strong as its foundations – the steel and concrete shouldering the weight of airy, light-filled space while lying unseen in the dark rock beneath. Parasite, a raucous and blood-splattered social satire from Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, is about that tension between surface-level elegance and subterranean menace.

The film centres on a luckless working-class family, the Kims, whose city apartment is a basement-level hovel, and whose cash-in-hand work folding pizza boxes for a local takeaway barely sustains them from one meal to the next. But then good fortune strikes: 20-something son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is recommended by a friend for a job tutoring the teenage daughter of an IT mogul, Nathan Park (Lee Sun-kyun), at his preposterously chic modernist abode.

Ki-woo’s friend smilingly tips him off that Park’s attractive wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) can be a little scatterbrained – and sure enough, when he arrives for work, he realises she’s a sucker ripe to be exploited. The Parks also have a younger son, who loves painting but hates sitting still. Wouldn’t he benefit from a tutor too? An art therapist, perhaps? Yeon-kyo jumps on the suggestion. And Ki-woo, thinking of his aspiring-actress sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam), says he has just the young woman in mind.

So begins a long and hilariously byzantine con in which the Kims conspire to fleece the Parks for all they are worth. New job opportunities are created and existing employees prodded out of the nest, cuckoo-style – such as the Parks’ doting housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun), whose unusual allergy leaves her open to a ruthless act of anaphylactic sabotage.

Yet as the two families’ existences entwine, class envy flickers, igniting a coal-seam fire of resentment that could explode at any moment. There is a superbly underplayed scene in which the Kim family patriarch Ki-taek (regular Bong man Song Kang-ho) realises the essentially low regard in which he’s held by the outwardly amicable Parks, and the look that spreads across his face is a quiet poem of humiliation and dismay. 

Yet the Park household has secrets of its own – which won’t even be hinted at here, but develop the film’s binding metaphor in grimly uproarious ways without loosening a single nut of its structural rigour. Bong’s previous film, the fantastical creature feature Okja, lost the plot so quickly it often felt like watching… well, a giant pig rampaging through a shopping centre, but Parasite’s grip on its point is so tight, you can sometimes feel it around your own neck.

High-speed hide-and-seek farce descends into horribly creative bloodshed, with the Parks’ home as a battleground we already know inside out, thanks to the film’s razor-sharp attunement to the physical space in which it’s located. A spectacular flash flood in the Kims’ grotty neighbourhood gives this otherwise interior piece the chance to stretch its limbs. But it hardly comes as relief: constriction is all part of the fun here. It’s a film that burrows under your skin and sinks in its teeth.

Parasite was screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival