Updated: Nov 8, 2019
The Plan That Never Fails
The underclass lives below ground, literally, and the upper class above it, in the latest film to deal with class inequality, Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Palme d’Or-winning “Parasite.”
“Parasite” opens with a traditional story of a family that is down on its luck, but clever and resourceful. Locked out of a neighbor’s internet, the daughter, Ki-jung (So-dam Park), and son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), find they can access a café Wi-Fi by sitting on their toilet, high on a ledge in their basement apartment.
This petty resourcefulness takes on another dimension when the Kims engage in a seemingly benign and entertaining con-game, in which they pretend not to be related—and to have skills they don’t possess—as they take four relatively menial jobs with the elite, above-ground Park family.
In contrast to the Kims’ basement existence, the Parks live in an architect-designed glass house—a powerful symbol of upper-class status—with a large lawn and garden, protected from the street by impenetrable high walls, a kind of life the Kims have never seen.
That’s how the Korean “upstairs/downstairs” begins. So far, lots of fun.
The con goes well, and when the Parks go on a camping trip, the Kims take over the house, drinking and eating and carousing in the living room as if, well, they owned the place. Ki-woo imagines dating his pupil, Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), and the Kim family dreamily fantasizes about becoming in-laws to the Parks. When the former housekeeper (Jeong-eun Lee) shows up at the door, she brings in with her an ill wind, and a bizarre new set of challenges for the Kims—one of them, appropriately, in the Parks’ basement.
In an obvious turn, a driving rainstorm brings the Parks home early from camping, initiating a madcap/slapstick portion of the film, but also a descent into a moral morass, along with a series of unpredictable events that reveal even more about the working poor, basement-dwellers, and the egotism of the elite.
The next day the Parks put on a spontaneous and elaborate garden birthday party for their son, Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung), requiring the Kims—now in full survival mode at a community shelter—to come to work to assist them in feting the little hellion. Upstairs/downstairs is one thing, but this is the life of the rich thrown in the faces of the working poor. Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), the Kim father, finds himself behind a bush in Indian headdress with the Park father (Sun-kyun Lee), forced to participate in a skit for the guest of honor. He questions Mr. Park about his reasons for being there. “You’re getting paid extra,” Mr. Park scolds him—sufficient compensation for ritual humiliation. In remarks overheard by Ki-taek, the Parks share their conclusion that the Kims “smell.” To the elites, class divisions involve money and status, but also body odor.
What follows is excessive, but also to some degree, understandable. The Parks are blind—blind to the underclass’s resilience, to their quest for self-improvement, to their instincts for self-preservation and survival. Secure in their fortified house of glass, they can’t see that the working poor—their employees—lack the resources and support systems to handle a crisis, to rebound from adversity. Ki-taek, the film’s Everyman, explains to his son the basic contingency of life: “You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned.”
The success of “Parasite” depends in part on the nuanced characters Bong Joon Ho develops. Ki-woo, the Kim son, has a stronger sense of morality than his manipulative and egoistic sister. The elite Mrs. Park (Yeo-jeong Jo) is comically simple and gullible, a perfect foil for the Kims’ con-game. And Mr. Park, far from being an arrogant, unfeeling businessman, appears to have a modicum of appreciation for Mr. Kim—at least until it’s his own family that needs help.
Part biting satire, part slapstick, part wistful dreaming, part horror—“Parasite” keeps the audience guessing, and on edge. As an exploration of class disparity, it succeeds where “Joker” tries and fails, where "Us" tries too hard, and where “Downton Abbey” doesn’t even try. The only comparable film may be 2018’s “Shoplifters,” and that’s putting it in good company.
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Yeo-jeong Jo, So-dam Park, Woo-sik Choi, Sun-kyun Lee, Hye-jin Jang, Jeong-eun Lee, Ji-so Jung, Hyun-jun Jung
Language: Korean; subtitled English
Runtime: 132 minutes