Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won the Bafta for best foreign film and is up for six Oscars and it is an involving drama. And satire. And thriller. And comedy. And allegory. And it is fabulous and enthralling on all those counts. It works on every level which is, perhaps, fitting for a film about levels and whether you are at the top or bottom in life. Essentially, it’s the story of a low-status family who gaslight a high-status family so it’s Crazy Rich Asians but Crazy Poor Asians too. Plus, it features the grimmest child’s birthday party ever. It is also a horror flick, I forgot to say.
It’s set in South Korea where we are introduced to the Kim family who are poor and scuttle around their slum basement apartment while leeching their wifi from the business upstairs and trying to do as little work as is possible to get by. There’s dad Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mum, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), a twentysomething daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and a teen son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik).
The plot kicks in when Ki-woo’s friend, who tutors the schoolgirl daughter of a rich family, says he’s going abroad and offers Ki-woo the gig. Ki-jung duly forges the educational diplomas Ki-woo needs (she has a way with Photoshop) and off he goes to the super-swish home — all glass and lawn sprinklers — of the obscenely wealthy Park family. Here, he quickly spots an opening for his sister as an ‘art therapist’ to the Park’s pampered little boy — he’s spectacularly ungifted at art but a doting Mrs Park (Jo Yeo-jeong) thinks otherwise; very funny — while his parents also become part of the household. Chung-sook becomes housekeeper although for her to take that position they must first incriminate the incumbent housekeeper. This necessitates a marvellously inventive ruse involving peaches. And TB. The chauffeur must also be incriminated, so Ki-taek can have his job. And this is marvellously inventive too. In fact, one thing you could never say about this film: it isn’t inventive enough.
The first half of the film is devoted to the Kim’s swindling and deceiving the Parks — who have no idea a family is living in their midst — and the stinging social commentary. Ki-taek says the Parks are ‘rich, but still nice’ and Chung-sook retorts: ‘They’re nice because they’re rich. If I were rich, I’d be nice too.’ Meanwhile, Mr Park (Sun-kyun Lee) keeps pointing out Ki-taek smells odd, by which he means ‘poor’. (It’s the smell, he says, of ‘boiled rags’.) But midway through the narrative performs a tonal swerve of the kind you weren’t expecting and couldn’t have expected in a million years. I don’t want to give the game away so will only say to all rich people: the underclass may be living under your feet. Literally. Go check. Go see what’s down there.
Directed by Joon-ho (Okja, Snowpiercer), who co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-Won, this is exceptionally propulsive storytelling. With most films, I now realise, you know what they are, pretty much, within the first ten minutes but this keeps you on the back foot throughout. You haven’t a clue what will happen next. But are desperate to know, particularly when, say, the Parks return from a trip early, and the Kims, who have been using the house as a party house, have to all hide under a coffee table. How are they going to get out of that one?
Meanwhile, the characters, while deeply flawed, are still human and relatable rather than pure caricatures — I developed a bit of a soft spot for the exquisitely gullible if self-interested Mrs Park. The film is packed with visual wit and metaphor. Staircases represent going up or down in the world. The Park boy is obsessed by American Indians, who presumably symbolises being oppressed, and when Ki-taek has to play American Indians it is what pushes him over the edge. At one point there is even an actual drowning-in-shit scene that may be a metaphor too far, but what the hell. And it’s all building up to that birthday party. Oh, boy.