Calling Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite a suspense/horror comedy may seem like a cautious attempt at covering all generic bases, but it doesn't even begin to describe the range and depth of this odd, ambitious film. There's lots of criminal activity and bad behavior, but you could probably get into a good argument trying to determine exactly which set of characters are the victims. (The same could be said for defining exactly who is being described by the title). It's a brutal cartoon of a film but with an unblinking sense of the real and contemporary, a broad lampoon of economic inequality that mercilessly skewers its targets while remaining disturbingly ambiguous.
Parasite is the story of two families living at the extreme ends of the social spectrum. Kim Ki-Woo lives in a subterranean slum with his parents and sister, scraping a living folding pizza delivery boxes and struggling to pick up a clean wi-fi signal. A chance encounter with a friend brings an opportunity to tutor the teenage daughter of Park Dong-ik, a wealthy executive. Within a few weeks, Ki-Woo adds the rest of his family to the Park staff as chauffeur, housekeeper and art therapist to the young Indian-obsessed son, each employment requiring a higher level of deception and outright criminality than the one before. The Kim family quickly settle into their new roles, and the addled Parks barely notice that the balance of power has shifted.
The Kim family's upscale journey is just the beginning of Parasite's serpentine plot lines, most of which defy easy description. Bong's carefully crafted story somehow manages to find room for murder, natural disasters and characters living in Phantom-of-the-Opera seclusion, each peculiar turn somehow fitting together with what could almost be called logic.
Bong is a wicked satirist, but his pointed humor, which has sometimes seemed a little heavy handed in earlier films (particularly Snowpiercer and Okja, his most recent films aimed at Western audiences), is dark and devastating here. He casually makes a few jabs at the offbeat banality of his characters (Mrs. Park, played with benign innocence by Jo Yeo-jeong, is besotted by all things American — the Parks win their way into the household in part by claiming to be from Illinois — while the affable Ki-Woo has a habit of exclaiming, "That's so metaphorical"), only to hammer in a sardonic punchline with an unexpected twist or a sudden burst of violence.
It's also a strangely beautiful film, as meticulously plotted as it is written. The gap between the families can even be seen in the physical landscape: The Parks live at the top of a hill, while the Kims are confined to a Dante-esque basement apartment which, in one harrowing sequence, becomes a watery hell of backed-up sewers. Both the Kim apartment and the Park home are presented as unnavigable labyrinths with winding pathways and dead-end corridors (the Parks at least have their young son's lovingly framed artwork). The vivid colors and painstaking design become hard to ignore, the environment as jarring as the acts committed by those who inhabit it.
Parasite is, from its first frame to its last, a film about class, but not one that lends itself to easy interpretation. Bong presents economic inequality, from the squalor of the Kim home to the empty-headed affluence of the Parks, but there's no moralizing behind it, no sense of exploitation or righteous proclamations that the meek are going to inherit the earth no matter whom they have to run over to get to it. It's ambiguous and provocative in its morality as well as in its politics. In Bong's satirical vision, there are no easy answers, just matters of instinct and bitter twists of fate.