South Korea, 2019
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
With Choi Woo-sik (Ki-woo), Park So-dam (Ki-jung), Song Kang-ho (Ki-Taek), Chang Hyae Jin (Chung-sook), Lee Sun-kyun (Mr. Park), Jo Yeon-jeong (Park Yeon-kyo), Jung Sizo (Park Da-hye), Jung Hyeon-jun (Park Da-song), Lee Jeong-eun (Moon-gwang), Park Myeong-hoon (Geun-se)
The film is first the funny chronicle of a cheeky swindle. A friend of Ki-woo asks him to be his substitute as the private English teacher of the daughter of a successful businessman, Mr. Park. Ki-woo doubts he could make it since he has never passed an examination to enter higher education (despite four attempts). But he tries his luck, relying on his sister, Ki-jung, to produce forged documents. He manages to convince the demanding mother, Park Yeon-kyo, and to please the pupil, Park Da-hye.
When Mrs. Park starts harping on the psychological flaws but great artistic talent of the other kid in the house, her son Da-song, Ki-woo gets what is a real, sudden and amazing, inspiration. He pretends to know an artist who dabbles in psychology, an American-educated genius who could provide advice and help, perhaps. This wunderkind turns out to be Ki-jung and she also seduces Park Yeon-kyo.
These wily teenagers are members of a poor family surviving in the basement of a building in a dilapidated street. Their mother, Chung-sook, strives to make the ends meet while the jobless father, Ki-taek, just sits around doing nothing. They live a world away from the Parks, the quintessential wealthy family who has raised on the back of the fast-growing, high-tech-oriented South Korean economy. But now there is the opportunity to benefit from these winners of the modernity: so Ki-woo’s bold move proves to be the first step of an ever-greater and ever more incredible scheme purporting to get all his family on the Parks’ payroll. Ki-woo and his relatives contrive lies and plots that amazingly reach their goals; and, as a consequence, Ki-taek becomes the Parks’ chauffeur and Chung-sook their housekeeper, replacing Moon-gwang, a highly skilled and hardworking middle-aged woman.
The film tracks precisely and always in cheerful tones the mechanics of Ki-woo’s imposture on a grand scale and makes it perfectly convincing despite the con’s enormity – or perhaps because of it. It works because of the ingenious and spirited ways and means his family can put together; their position as the social underdogs guarantees the audience’s sympathy; the task is made easier by their foils. Mr. Park comes across as the unadulterated snob cum macho entrepreneur, conservative and sniffy – indeed, he proves highly sensitive to human fragrances and what they belie. His wife has even more health-conscious attitudes and social prejudices bordering on complete foolishness. Actually, she is a remarkably scatterbrained wealthy and idle housewife, vaguely reminiscent of some hapless but lucky feminine characters of the bygone American screwball comedies and Ki-taek could rightly complain that she is, along with her husband by the way, too gullible. All the actresses and actors are compelling, with their voices’ pitches and accents perfectly reflecting the chasm between their social backgrounds and the pretenses underpinning the social relationships.
So far the film is a fast-paced, fluid and hilarious riff on the opposition between rich and poor put upside down but when Ki-woo’s clan goes too far, by spending an evening partying in the Parks’ huge and select house while the owners are out, the film veers unexpectedly in an odd and violent direction.
Moon-gwang rings at the door, pretending she forgot something. It turns out she was hiding in the bunker built below the house a husband harassed by debts collectors. The former housekeeper rightly worries about the future of Geun-se and hopes that her successor would do something. But she then realizes that she has been framed by this successor’s family. Both clans pick up a fight which ends with Ki-woo’s relatives overpowering Geun-se, who is bound and gagged in his bunker, and Moon-gwang, who is badly injured and left lying next to her husband. The evening is not over: the Parks come back earlier than expected and there are farcical, slapstick scenes as the owners move around their house while Ki-woo, Ki-jung and Ki-taek try to hide and then to flee. When the three get out, they are caught in a storm that floods their apartment – and actually their whole lower-class neighborhood. This deluge aptly symbolizes the destruction of the clan’s hope for security and comfort while a clever parallel editing poignantly likens that destruction with the suffering of the Geun-se/Moon-gwang couple left alone, wounded and tied in that other place below the surface: the night becomes the depressing depiction of the immensity of the human disaster that poverty is (the whole endeavor is a stunning exploration of geographical and architectural topography as carbon copies of the social classes and their hierarchy and troubles).
That long, complex turning point leads to a fully unexpected and shocking denouement. The day after, as Mrs. Park organizes a birthday party for Da-song, Geun-se mourns the death of his wife – and turns crazy, bent on revenge. The party becomes a massacre as the poor fight each other again, this time with blades instead of fists and the rich are not spared: a few get their skins cut and Mr. Park is knifed to death. The satire has become a slasher and the irony has morphed into an explosion of rage. The upfront image of a sophisticated though imperfect society turns out to hiding a real-life dystopia where the poor cannot overcome the rich, as they are too busy to settle their scores in the rat race that their struggle to make the ends meet really is – so much for the fall of the bourgeois. This is a truly pessimistic vision that is expressed in a remarkably outrageous manner, with slow-motion images and excessive acting characterizing this massacre’s mise en scène.
But the narrative does not end at this point and veers in an even more bizarre direction, with an abrupt change of tone and message. After recovering from his wounds and attending to his trial, Ki-woo tries to find the whereabouts of his father, who seemed to have vanished into thin air after killing Mr. Park. He eventually discovers he is the new tenant of the bunker, as the house has got new owners. Both manage to exchange messages and Ki-woo promises to get Ki-taek out. But not with tricks and shady deals, and certainly not through a revolution: he just swears he would be an honest fellow, attend at long last the university, get rich and buy back the house, with his beloved and serious mother riding on his coattails.
After a searing assessment of the flaws of the South Korean society “Gisaengchung – Parasite” gives the impression to give a nod to its values. This conclusion is somehow ambiguous and rather undercuts the film’s purpose, suddenly casting it more as a provocative entertainment whose constantly smooth and smart camerawork truly dazzles than as a bold, biting statement. But this ultimate change of direction in a film that has enjoyed surprising the audience by constantly altering the narrative and switching from one tone to another, with flawless skill and bright confidence, can also be read as a final but deeply emotional flourish, standing as a son’s tribute to a father he wants to appreciate more than the guy may deserve. That the bond between son and father is what promises to hold and last in the wake of their failed swindle and personal tragedy signals that there are feelings that inequality and its mishaps cannot corrode.