It’s best to go into “Parasite,” the Cannes Film Festival grand-prize winner by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (“Snowpiercer”), not knowing too much about what you’re about to see; the better to let its sly power sneak up on you. A dark satire of the class divide in contemporary South Korea, it’s the story of two families of four. One of them — we never learn their last name — lives in a squalid basement apartment, dank and cluttered; all four members, including the grown son and daughter, are out of work, causing them to take desperation jobs like folding pizza boxes. The other family, the Parks, are wealthy, living in a vast, elegant home with green lawns and gleaming floors and a basement stocked with every imaginable need.
These two families seem to be living in different worlds, and indeed they are: Our first glimpse of that basement apartment is the sight of socks and underwear hanging to dry by the grimy window; in the immaculate Park house, nothing dirty is ever seen. (A housekeeper is ever-present, but we never even see her cleaning.) But those two worlds connect, in the movie’s early scenes: Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the oldest son of the unemployed family, forges some university documents to get a job tutoring the Parks’ teenage daughter. Dazzled by the easy money, he encourages his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) to likewise fake her credentials and get hired as an art therapist for the Parks’ young son.
And then … well, you’ll just have to get pulled in, as I was, watching as a deception gets spun tighter and tighter until you’re certain that something will snap, like a rubber band stretched beyond endurance. You’ll watch knowing you’re in the hands of a master filmmaker; only wondering when it’s over how certain effects were achieved (a sequence near the end is a wonder), and losing yourself in these characters: particularly the gentle, wide-eyed anxiety of Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong), and the way that Ki-woo’s father (Song Kang-ho), a man who cheerfully recites his string of failed businesses, remains determined to somehow find a way to make his family prosperous again.
“Parasite” — the title metaphor becomes abundantly clear — is filled with vivid conversations that remind us how the Parks can’t imagine (or don’t care to imagine) how the other half lives. In one scene, they coolly discuss how poor people smell; like an old radish, says Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun), or a rag that’s been boiled. Ki-woo’s family, however, seems to understand the rich all too well. His mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) corrects her son when he says Mrs. Park is “rich, but nice” — she’s nice, Chung-sook says, because she’s rich. “Money is an iron,” says this wise mother. “It smooths out all the creases.”
★★★★ “Parasite,” with Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Chang Hyae-jin. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, from a screenplay by Bong and Han Jin-won. 131 minutes. Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content. In Korean, with English subtitles. Opens Oct. 25 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Lincoln Square Cinemas.