Bong employs a 2.39 aspect ratio and the wideness of the screen is apparent from the opening shot of the Kim family's sub-basement apartment. The Kim family crowds into every scene together, limbs squished together or tumbling from the frame. Their closeness is mirrored by the cramped spaces of their home, all clutter and narrow hallways and junk spilling from rooms. In sharp contrast, the rich Park family rarely shares space in a frame. Their home, all modernist angles and simplicity has the sheen of a clean, wealthy facade -- the house is the former home of a well-known architect and it's both tastefully decorated and tastefully maintained. There's scant opportunity for these two disparate classes to come in contact with each other, as Mrs. Park underlines with an offhand comment about how she can't even remember the last time she rode a subway.
One of the only intersections is the way that Ki-woo Kim (Woo-Sik Choi) first gets into the household -- introduced by a friend to be an English tutor to Da-hye Park. He hasn't gone to university and he doesn't speak English very well, but it doesn't matter. He comes from a family of hustlers and he's soon accepted with open arms and an open wallet by a trusting Mrs. Park (Yeo-Jung Jo), setting off a chain of events that Bong twists in careful and darkly madcap ways.
The style of their homes isn't the only difference between the houses. Ki-woo has to ascend flights of stairs to leave his neighborhood, and even once past the front gate, the camera swings upward to emphasize his climb when he first visits the Park home. Bong is a huge fan of director Ki-young Kim and his 1960 film The Housemaid, and nothing could spell that out more than the importance of stairs for him in the film. Stairs have always been a sign of affluence for Koreans in homes, symbolizing their wealth and ability to afford a home with more than one floor. Bong utilizes stairs visually but also features it in pivotal moments of the script, using it to show the struggles of the lower class to rise above their station to no avail.
Bong isn't shy to use metaphor, and when characters talk about how "metaphorical" an item is or how "serious" they're being, they're almost in parody of themselves. The symbol of water and the gift of a rock are all interwoven into the story, but Bong's mastery is truly in Parasite's characters. Despite villainous actions, he hasn't created any villains. Each family quartet is sympathetic and fully realized. Perhaps the Kims are seen to be the parasites at first, taking advantage of the rich Parks, but the Parks are no less so. They feed on and utilize the Kims, dependent on them for their livelihood without even realizing how much they ignore and use the poorer to enable their status in life. It's a story of impersonation, but not only of the members of the Kims as they try on the roles of the more fortunate, but also of the Parks. They too pretend to take on characteristics of the lower class to get a kick out of it, whether in sexual roleplay or when eating commoner's noodles, albeit with sirloin steak added in.
Parasite balances dark humor with pathos as it races up to a second act and beyond. Bong is stylish in narrative and visual flair, nudging the camera or our minds to go one way or the other. Long-time collaborators actor Kang-ho Song and cinematographer Kyung-Pyo Hong add incredible nuance to the film. The former is able to evince a building of emotions with a mere twitch of a muscle or hooded eyes, and Hong's use of light to contrast the two households is remarkable and subtle. Hong has worked on some of the more well-known and beautiful films of the past years, including Burning, The Wailing, and Snowpiercer, and is yet able to create a new vocabulary to fit whatever film and whatever story he needs to service. Parasite is both crisp and intimate, going from the dank subterranean depths of despair to the light-filled, sparse minimalist angles of the kind of wealth that doesn't need to talk about itself.
But the real wealth comes from the depths of Parasite's sympathy towards its characters. The Parks may not be villains, but they don't understand the plight of the Kims, who struggle onwards and not without real effort or talent. And despite their best intentions or desires, they're not able to rise above their station or change who they are. Parasite speaks to the class disparity not only in Korea, but also in many other parts of the world. And it speaks to the line that's drawn between them and the inability of change, although one may wish it was as simple as climbing a flight of stairs to emerge into a better position.