The division of the classes has been a consistent movie theme since the cinema's early days. Charlie Chaplin's tramp came from those lower depths, always striving to move up in the world even though his pants were ripped and his manners far from impeccable. Up to and including Downton Abbey, there has been an upstairs-downstairs distinction.
Yet, while the ruling and servant classes sometimes can meet on semi-equal terms, that is frequently only a movie ruse. I'm reminded of a scene from Robert Altman's Gosford Park, another movie that subverts expectations of class unity. In one scene, a maid goes to light a fire in her master's room, apologizing for waking him, Her employer, Harry Denton, asks "why does everyone treat me as if I were one of those stupid snobs? I spent half the week downstairs with all of you."
To which the maid replies curtly, "you can't be on both teams at once, sir."
Which brings us to Parasite, the latest movie from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, one of our contemporary film masters. Many of his films are messy morality tales, stories of aspiration and conspiracies to raise one up in the world, no matter what dirty deeds need to be done to reach that achievement. His most popular film until now, Snowpiercer, concerns a ruling class oppressing the less powerful on a speeding train to nowhere. My favoritie Joon-ho film, The Host, features a lower-class family living in a food stand and fending off a sea creature killing off the homeless. The government and powerful leaders attempt to poison the river -- and the poor neighbors - after denying the problem even exists.
In Parasite, as well as other Joon-ho dramas, those aspirations for a better life barely ever work out. At one point near the end of the film, a character in Parasite talks about making a plan to escape destitution. But there is also resignation that dreams also are just that and nothing more ."Life never works out that way," the character says, staring blankly.
But in Parasite, what a journey it is to get there. Joon-ho shows that what you need is vigor, and some loose scruples that allow for doing whatever it takes, to rise in the world. His film is a dagger to the heart of the rich, both figuratively and literally, in this case.
The film expertly shows a profound class divide as broad as the Park family's estate. The Parks live in an ultra-modern, gated compound, an open plan residence designed by the famous architect who once lived there. The Kim family lives in the slums, with the parents and two siblings sharing a semi-basement, one-room hovel barely fit for a rat. Drunks constantly pee outside their window, and their toilet doubles as a recliner.
But when a friend of the son, Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), drops by and tells them that he is tutoring the Park's teenage daughter in English but is looking for a replacement, the wheels of ambition start turning. When Ki-woo' sister, Ki-jung, doctors a work document that shows that he is a college student studying English, he gets the job. That is just the start of their plans.
Each of the family members connives to replace the other servants at the Park's manse. The father, played by Bong regular Kang Ho-sang, has his daughter, who becomes the son's art tutor, arrange to take off her panties in the backseat of the family limo. When the Park patriarch discovers the undies, he blames the driver, who is fired and replaced by the Kim's father, Ki-taek.
The mother becomes the housekeeper after making up a story that the longtime maid has tuberculosis. The family is entrenched at the house, becoming part of the Park family, beloved by their two children and allowing the parents to confide their secrets. It is a cozy nest. But this cosplay cannot hold. There is a ghost gumming up the works, in this case a literal spirit that will thwart their plans and take revenge.
And the Parks themselves, especially the father, is especially wary. In an early foreshadowing of what is to come, he tells Ki-taek in the limo that he can't stand people who cross the line. The Kim family has not only crossed the line already, they have broad-jumped to the sand pit well beyond reason.
Bong, in his subtle manner, does not overplay the Kim's home invasion. He sprinkles the scenes at the Park home with sprightly classical music and shoots them from the point of view of the Kims viewing these strange, wealthy creatures like they are circus animals.
A night of drinking and an unwanted house guest end up crashing it all down. Without spoiling too much, the former house servant returns to collect a valuable, in this case her ghost of a husband that she has stashed in the secret wine cellar that the Parks do not know exists. It is behind a bookshelf, and she has brought food to him at night when no one is looking. Her husband has nowhere else to go, as he can't afford a house and likes being near his wife.
While the Parks are away on a camping trip, the servant returns, and the secret is out. So is hell unleashed for the Kims. The night goes awry after the Kims invade the Parks' liquor cabinet to treat themselves to the conveniences that they seldom have. Life never works out the way it should, and plans are meant to fail. Bong makes his case that the upper class is not to be penetrated, especially by interlopers from the depths -- an underground basement, in the case of the Kims and the housekeeper's husband -- and that any attempt to strive is met by havoc.
The last third of the film turns a bit nasty, violent and chaotic. Suffice to say that the Parks come home from their camping trip early, to their peril. A birthday party for their son, an ostentatious society show that makes the Kims performers in another costume drama, is meant to fail badly. And it does, with disastrous consequences for both the Parks and the Kims.
Bong expertly engages the viewers' sympathies with both sides. The Kims grow angrier and more despairing; as they perform for their hosts, their home is flooded with sewage in a natural disaster that leave them homeless and smelling even worse than before. The Parks, especially the mother, are not villains or especially mean to their employees. They are merely acting out their parts.
The movie becomes a tragedy in an even greater sense. It is not based necessarily on the decisions or actions of either the Kims or Parks. This is merely the way that things work in a class society, an inbred, fundamental flaw in the system that cannot be remedied. While the film ends on a note of loss, it also shows forgiveness and an understanding that striving can be better achieved by more patient means that take no shortcuts.
Meanwhile, the characters are left broken. Bong's movie shows that no sides are winners in the economic arena, not the rich shut off from the world or the poor acting as ciphers to get something they badly want.
There is comedy in this telling, as Bong knows how to do farce. It is sometimes done in amorous ways. The Parks' daughter is infatuated with the Kims' son and wants to run away with him, something not possible. Mr. and Mrs. Park make out on a coach while their son sleeps outside their window in a tent, in a rare moment of intimacy amid the formality.
The director creates a perfect blend of satire and tragedy, but one that never strays from harder truths. You are on one team or the other when it comes to the economic divide but never both.