Few filmmakers working today display the combination of storytelling command, visual and editorial craft and perverse edge that distinguishes Bong Joon-ho. The writer-director of "The Host" returns with "Parasite," an income-inequality comedy that's also a tinderbox ever threatening to ignite.
The screenplay by Bong and co-writer Han Jin-won begins by introducing the Kims, a family living hand to mouth in a South Korean slum. From their sunken apartment, the Kims -- father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mother Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee), son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and daughter Ki-jeong (So-dam Park) -- conspire to steal local Wi-Fi; endure the indignity of drunks habitually urinating right before their eyes; and work together at odd jobs, like folding pizza boxes for a pittance.
Although theirs is a constantly trying existence, the Kims have each other. This tight-knit bunch of merry pranksters spends each day tricking poverty into allowing them to survive on the bottom rung of society. The family catches a break when a friend of Ki-woo, a university student about to study abroad, more or less hands off his job of tutoring rich girl Park Da-hye. After smoothly maneuvering himself into the family, Ki-woo lands the job and entry into the Parks' lavis and literally above-it-all modern manse (also occupied by Lee Sun-kyun's Mr. Park and Jung Hyun-joon's spoiled brat Da-song). The ostensible "Parasite" of the title, the Kim family begins pondering how to make the most of their new access to the good life.
That's as much as you should know going into "Parasite," which revels in its narrative hairpin turns. Bong masterfully constructs a comic first act destined to implode in a suspenseful second act. With a skilled cast, dazzling confidence and Fincher-esque control of design, photography and pacing, Bong delivers wild-ride entertainment that's funny, squirmy, horrifying and poignant all in service of a zeitgeist-y story of working-class frustration -- or worse, the madness of true rock-bottom desperation -- boiling over in ways the wealthy can no longer ignore.
It's a dog-eat-dog world, where plans will always be disrupted by the chaos of nature and the predictability of human nature.
"Parasite" implicitly poses the question of who is truly living off of whom in today's economy that, if it continues on its current course, seems destined for class warfare. When populism fails at the ballot box, can violence be far behind? The stakes established, Bong hurtles into his unapologetic comic thriller with reckless abandon, following the allegorical fantasy where it wants to go. "Parasite" suggests that struggle tightens the bonds of family -- but an untested family, warm in the lap of luxury, lives in an illusion of security and a cloud of ignorance. Deliver a shock to that system, and the pain and bewilderment may be unendurable, irreparable.