(WARNING: plot twists and story discussed in close and explicit detail)
Bong Joon-ho's Parasite hums along nicely, a Rube Goldberg thriller whose parts are polished to a shine, slide over and into each other with lubricated precision.
The title sums up the film: the struggling Kim family encounters the comfortably situated Park family and one by one members of the former insinuate themselves into positions between the latter as tutor (Kim son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), teaching English to Park daughter Da-hye (Jung ji-so)), self-proclaimed therapist (Kim daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), using art to calm the Parks' ADHD son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun)), housekeeper (Kim matriarch Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), cooking for Park matriarch Choi Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong)), and chauffeur (Kim patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) driving for Park patriarch Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyn)). The Kims in effect suck questionably earned income from the latter's considerable disposable budget.
Or do they? Bong suggests that the Parks do some leeching of their own, with the young Da-hye throwing herself at Ki-woo, the Kim family after losing their apartment in a flash flood being called over to attend a birthday party for Da-song--in costume--and Ms. Park demanding that Ms. Kim prepare a hot noodle dish (ram-don) in the brief time before the Parks arrive home by car. The dish, a hybrid of two types of instant noodles (manufacturer Nongshim's Chapagetti, or Chinese-style jajang ramen noodles in black-bean sauce, and Neoguri, Japanese-style udon noodles with a spicy seafood flavor--English subtitle translator Darcy Parquet improvised a name out of the syllables of the two prime ingredients) topped with Hanwoo, or the Korean equivalent of pricey Wagyu beef (Mr. Parquet opted to for the easier-to-comprehend 'sirloin'). Cheap noodles topped with an extravagant luxury item--that's the Park family in a bowl, with a dash of anti-Japanese resentment added (Neoguri being a way of appropriating Japanese udon and turning it into a Korean staple, culinary retribution for the way the Japanese once colonized Korea and is currently waging a trade war against them).
With the Kims securely positioned they suddenly discover they aren't the first: the Parks' previous housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) has kept her husband Gook Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon) in a hidden bunker all along, in an attempt to escape loan sharks. Kims battle fellow proles for the privilege of living off the Parks; the Parks, oblivious of the war seething below, continue their pettily eccentric lives.
Upstairs/downstairs comedies and parasitic relationships aren't anything new--one thinks of Rian Johnson's Knives Out or Robert Altman's Gosford Park or Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game; one also thinks--when discussing social spongers--of Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning and, before that, Moliere's Tartuffe.
Bong's Kims aren't quite like Boudu; they don't live off the Parks' good graces but work, and hard--Dong-ik doesn't hire Kim-taek straightaway but auditions him first, testing the latter's driving skills by sitting in the back with a drink in hand (Kim-taek doesn't spill a drop); Chung-sook swiftly complies with Ms. Park's demand, presenting steaming hot noodles topped with a glossy dark sauce, slices of decadently fatty beef. On the other hand the Parks aren't totally contemptible--there's something poignant about their total defenselessness once the Kims get past the initial defensiveness, the way the rich seem childlike and helpless without their servants. Despite the title there's a symbiotic element to this hilariously knotty relationship.
Moon-gwang seems to have operated the more cunning, more manageable (being simpler) scam, by holding back from the Parks the existence of the bunker, and maintaining her husband in there for years; when the Kims overthrow her, the elderly couple fall back to being bottom feeders on the steep and narrow ladder of this carefully designed house (actually a standalone set designed and built especially for the film), with the bunker door sealed tight between haves and almost-haves against the have-nots, and little room for everyone at the very top.
Or is there? That might be everyone's belief, that the top rung has strictly limited space; then again that might be the single most important question no one has thought to ask.
That bunker incidentally adds another political angle: the architect (the fictitious Namgoong Hyeonja) built it as protection against a North Korean attack; little did the architect dream that the shelter would house a two-legged ticking bomb that would impact the lives of all three families.
The climax is appropriately chaotic, but two details feel bothersome:
1) I can appreciate Ki-taek's resentment of Dong-ik, down to the way the latter's nose wrinkles when he catches Geun-sae's smell, and I understand Ki-taek's anger at Dong-ik prioritizing his son's trauma over Ki-jeok's mortal wound, but I still can't quite buy any of this leading to Ki-taek's homicidal impulse. Call it a failure of staging, a failure of characterization, or a failure of empathy on my part, but there it is.
2) I can't quite appreciate Ki-taek's ultimate fate. Agree, there's a beautiful symmetry to where he ends up, but give or take a month (and there seems to be enough provisions in the bunker to hide for at least a month) he can easily sneak out, or get caught in the attempt. It doesn't make much sense for him to hide there without some way of keeping him supplied; come to think of it it didn't make much sense for Moon-gwang to keep her husband in there once she was fired. The situation for either occupant shouldn't last long, despite what Bong implies.
A great film? I don't know; I do consider it great entertainment. Bong has done better I think--the tightening despair of Mother, the haunted ambiguity of Memories of Murder--Bong sails skillfully enough through the shoals of horror and science fiction but I'd say he soars in his realist dramas. Parasite doesn't quite have the malevolence of Luis Bunuel's Viridiana, with its pitiless cruelty and flamethrower approach at religious hypocrisy (an upstairs-downstairs comedy involving religion would work best, I suspect, in puritan America), nor does it have the dance-at-volcano's-edge power of Renoir's Rules of the Game (arguably the masterpiece of the genre). The film does inspire consistent glee and the occasional guffaw, and one drools at the thought of a bowl of shining ram-don noodles topped with thick slices of Hanwoo beef--of convenience fare elevated, by any means possible, to the level of haute cuisine.
First published in Businessworld, 2.14.17