Parasite may be both the most amusing and the most horrifying movie of the year. That is, if you can get past its inept attempt at making a political statement. 

Written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, Parasite recently became the first foreign language film to win the Academy Award for best picture. 

Bong’s investigation of class strife in contemporary Seoul spends its first 40 minutes setting up its premise and then springs its trap. Just as you are getting used to the sordid charm of the Kims, a slum-dwelling family of dedicated grifters, you are suddenly plunged into an entirely unexpected Grand Guignol.  

The Kims live in the basement apartment of a Seoul slum. Despite their straitened circumstances, the parents and their two grown children barely strive to alter their situation. Even though their sole source of income is folding delivery boxes for a chain of pizzerias, they perform their task so shoddily their employer constantly threatens their dismissal. Beyond their official work, they are expert leeches. Their principal nourishment comes from the pizzas they steal from their employer. Without a customer account, they tap into the electric utility’s grid. For internet access, they piggyback off of their neighbors’ signals.  

Still, they cannot offset other problems. When it rains, their apartment floods to a knee-deep river of flotsam and jetsam, and their single toilet geysers urine and feces into their rooms. What’s more, their low-rent neighbors routinely urinate in the street just outside their windows. Despite all this, Kim, Sr. (Song Kang-ho), takes no steps to improve their circumstances. He is content to laze about the apartment, entirely unconcerned about tomorrow. As he tells his son, Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), he refuses to plan ahead. Why should he? Plans always go wrong anyhow, he explains.   

Then an unexpected opportunity arises. Ki-woo’s friend asks him to take over his tutoring job temporarily. His student, he explains, is a 15-year-old daughter of the Parks, an extremely wealthy family living well above ground in a Seoul suburb. No flooding for the Parks. All Ki-woo must do is pretend he is a licensed educator well-equipped to teach the girl English and math. With the aid of phony credentials devised by his computer-savvy sister, Ki-woo easily cons the Parks.

Then the plan begins to expand. Ki-woo presents his sister to the Parks as a highly qualified therapist who will be able to care for the family’s autistic son. He doesn’t bother to tell them she is his sister. Nor does he acknowledge his relationship with his mother and father when they in turn apply to the Parks for work as housekeeper and chauffeur. Revealing their family ties might jeopardize their plan, which is to colonize the Park home after displacing the employees who have been serving the Parks for years.  

Complicating the plan is the presence of another indigent family secretly living in the Parks’ sub-basement. They also have been cashing in on the Parks and are determined to continue this arrangement. Class struggle, you see, is not just between the rich and the poor. At first the Park family remains blissfully ignorant of their parasitic interlopers. When they learn the truth, it is too late. The struggle is on, and it proves quite deadly.

All of Bong’s films express his hatred for what he regards as the capitalist-enforced class system. In his vision, a socialist regime would serve the common man far more equitably. It is odd he should think so. There is an object lesson quite close to home that says otherwise. It is called North Korea. But no matter. Ideologues are not troubled by facts.  

Two other films by Bong illustrate his obsession. In The Host (2006), a whale-like monster with legs rises from the Han river in Seoul. It is a mutation caused by an American corporation’s dumping of formaldehyde in the river. The beast attacks the city’s population, just like his forerunner Godzilla. When the authorities move in, they strive to save the upper class before bothering with the lower. 

Eight years later, Bong made the post-apocalyptic film Snowpiercer, in which the world’s population has dwindled to a mere thousand souls. It seems the world governments had given climate scientists too much heed. To save the world from its prophesied overheating, they decided to refrigerate the planet, but they unwittingly went too far, killing almost all life forms. The remaining humans are packed into a train that perpetually runs around the frozen planet, never stopping, not even at Times Square.  

The passengers comprise people from every social stratum, and the usual class inequities remain apparent. While the upper class dines on gourmet meals in the leading cars, the working class is forced to ride in the rear, munching on black protein bars made of freeze-dried insects. This is even scarier than those Godzilla meets Mothra extravaganzas.    

The politics of these films could hardly be sillier. Yet, predictably, critics have been bowled over by Bong’s dystopian visions. How many film reviewers do you know who are not bleeding-heart socialists? I suppose their bad judgment comes from spending too much time in the dark.

Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women (1868) also deals with a financially troubled family. Novelist Louisa May Alcott wrote about the March family, a fictionalized version of the Alcotts, to tell the story of a New England family in the 1860s. Alcott did not want to write the novel, believing it would be too dull to be successful in the marketplace. She was urged to do so by publisher Thomas Niles, who had been accepting her commercial short stories of sensational adventure and sultry romance. For an example of the latter, read her story “Perilous Play,” in which the protagonists indulge in hashish as an aid to their romance.

Niles urged her to try something else, suggesting she write about what she knew. What she knew was her family in Concord, Massachusetts. She did not think they were an especially bankable subject, but she could not have been more mistaken. Her book was an immediate success and is still in print today.

The Alcott family had four daughters, presided over by a capable mother. Their father, however, was a feckless dreamer who never earned enough to support them adequately. This weighed on Louisa from the time she was 11 years old. That was when she decided she had to make money in order to care for her family. Little Women enabled her to do that. In today’s money, the book made her over $2 million during her lifetime. Its royalties provided for her immediate family and quite a few of her relatives. Since she insisted on being given the copyright, it also gave her economic freedom. 

Alcott modeled her characters on her family members, paying special attention to her sisters. As in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, each sister embodies an aspect of feminine psychology. Meg (Emma Watson), the eldest, is demure and conservative. Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the second in line, is an independent, outspoken tomboy, based on Alcott herself. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who comes down with scarlet fever, is sweet, thoughtful, and uncomplaining. Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest, is a talented painter but, in her own estimation, lacks genius and so resigns herself to making a prosperous match. 

There’s not much that is adventurous or startling in the narrative, but it’s compelling nevertheless. The book’s appeal derives from the recognizable realism with which Alcott portrayed her family’s ordinary lives and the amusing incidents in which they were involved, such as the evening when Jo stands too close to the fireplace and her dress begins to burn. Her sisters then throw her on the floor and beat the fire out. It’s a comical moment, certainly, but one that has a stamp of truth on it and further illustrates the sisters’ devotion to one another.  

The novel is overly preachy at times, a complaint Niles made to Alcott about her early stories. In the novel, Niles becomes Mr. Dashwood, who tells Jo the public does not want moral instruction, a judgment with which Jo silently disagrees. Gerwig’s film includes this scene, placing it at the beginning to demonstrate what a woman writer had to put up with in the past and perhaps in the present. After all, this was a time when women’s rights were more limited.

Gerwig plays some other editing tricks to make the narrative serve her purpose. She has said she wanted to “correct” or “update” Alcott in order to make her more of a feminist than she was. For one thing, in the novel, Jo goes on at length about the joy of caring for the children in the school she runs in the house she inherited from her wealthy aunt. All the students are boys—or ragamuffins, as she calls them. It seems Jo cannot get enough of them. Gerwig has “corrected” this episode by including as many girls as boys among the students. Not a big deal I suppose, when you consider Gerwig’s decision to be faithful to the novel’s surprisingly unfeminist ending, which I will not discuss here, in deference to male readers who may not have read the novel yet.