At the Cannes Film Festival in May, the actress Elle Fanning walked down the red carpet in a silk Gucci gown, with cape sleeves and a crystal appliqué flower at the waist. The cost of this soigné ensemble—that is, if you could buy it in stores, which you cannot—likely reached $10,000, and that is without the shoes. This was just one of dozens of couture gowns that swished along the Riviera. Yet in the midst of this perfumed opulence, the Cannes judges have for the last few years bestowed the festival’s top prize—the Palme d’Or—upon films that display an explicit and uncompromising class consciousness.
The 2017 prize went to The Square, an absurdist comedy from Swedish director Ruben Ostlund, in which the pretentious curator of a ritzy art museum has to confront a poor family in order to retrieve his stolen wallet. In 2018, the jury honored Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, a heartrending Japanese saga about a family living in a one-room shack in Tokyo, stealing food and clothing to survive. And this year, the Palme d’Or went to Parasite, the seventh feature from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, whose recent films include the postapocalyptic Snowpiercer and the unnerving slaughterhouse drama Okja. The film marks the director’s return to shooting in Seoul and to naturalism (well, more or less—it would not be a Bong Joon-ho picture without a few surreal surprises slithering in a corner). It is not only his best, most entertaining work to date—a thriller, a comedy of manners, a disaster epic, and a heist film all rolled into one—but it is also his most explicit film about wealth disparity and the roiling resentment it creates.
The premise is deceptively simple. As the film opens, we meet a poor family of four, eating a modest dinner and drinking beer in their cramped basement apartment. From their small kitchen table, they can see a sliver of the street and are often forced to gaze upon indignities as they eat. A local drunk man urinates forcefully in front of them. An exterminator sends a blast of noxious chemicals into their home. For the most part, the family has learned to find these happenings amusing, or, at worst, lightly obnoxious. They have gotten used to being downstream.
All four members of the family are out of work—they get by on small, mind-numbing jobs like folding pizza boxes. The daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), is resigned to this life; she couldn’t get into art school and spends most days playing video games. Her older brother, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), is sensitive and savvy, despite having failed his university entrance exam four times. He’s scrappy, street-smart, a survivor. The family matriarch, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), and patriarch, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, one of South Korea’s most famous and decorated actors), are a mischievous pair, cracking wicked jokes and trying to keep morale up. They prattle and joke over dinner about future wealth, about schemes for advancement, about what they would give to live in a place where they didn’t have to stand on top of the toilet to get a Wi-Fi signal.
Then one day, a dapper friend named Min comes to visit Ki-woo. Min is going abroad, and he offers Ki-woo his gig tutoring the teenage daughter of a wealthy family. Ki-woo accepts, and Min gives him a parting gift: The “scholar’s rock” is a stone the size of a laptop computer, meant to bring luck and money to its owners. “This is so metaphorical,” Ki-woo says, beaming. If there is some irony in all of this—a family that has almost nothing can’t do much with a giant decorative boulder—Ki-woo doesn’t acknowledge it. He chooses to embrace the symbolism, hugging the slab to his chest as a sign that his family is just about to get everything they deserve. When he heads off for his first day of tutoring, Ki-woo tells his father that he has forged his diploma in order to qualify for the job. He doesn’t consider it a crime; the deception is just a step toward his destiny.
Bong Joon-ho often drops metaphors into his films—the protein bars made of cockroaches in Snowpiercer connect with the scuttling but resilient passengers stuck on the back of the train—but it is rare that he makes a character use the word out loud. With the rock metaphor, Bong is setting up a Chekhovian pistol, showing us an explosive scenario and letting us wait for it to blow up. The stone may be a good omen, but it is also heavy; Ki-woo seems to know, deep down, that moving between classes will be a treacherous process. He has to be smart about it, or it will crush him.
At first, Ki-Woo is thrilled by the opportunity to work for the refined Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and his ditzy wife, Yeon-kyo (a very funny Cho Yeo-jeong), tutoring their daughter, Da-hye (Jung Zi-so). The Park residence sits behind a tall, locked gate on a pristine city side street. As Ki-woo enters, he sees a grand, manicured front lawn, a lush shock of green. The housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), tells him that the building once belonged to a famous Korean architect. Inside, Ki-woo encounters a stark minimalism that would not be out of place in a Silicon Valley mogul’s home (we soon learn that Mr. Park has made his fortune in tech). The house, an airy, open split-level, features modular furniture and a gray and ocher color scheme; it looks more like an art gallery than a family home. Yeon-kyo is equally vacant; she insists on sitting in on Ki-woo’s first lesson with Da-hye, petting her Pomeranian, who just happens to match her dress.
Despite little evidence, Yeon-kyo believes her children to be exceptional geniuses. She tells Ki-woo that her young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), is a gifted artist, whose crude self-portrait she has proudly displayed on the wall. The child keeps burning through art tutors because no one can properly foster his talent, she says. It is clear that Da-song is not so much a gifted artist as a hyperactive misfit, in need of behavioral help rather than blind encouragement. Still, Ki-woo begins to hatch a plan. He says he just happens to know a renowned art therapist, who might be available but is very expensive. At the mention of pricey exclusivity, Yeon-kyo begs for an introduction. And this is how Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jung, comes to work in the Park household, posing as an elite art tutor for children.
Over time, the children create jobs for their parents, too. They push out the Parks’ Mercedes-Benz driver and install their father, Ki-taek, in his place. Then, in an even bolder act, they lead Yeon-kyo to believe that the housekeeper, Moon-gwang, is a threat to the children of the family, so that she, too, will be fired. Ki-woo’s mother, Chung-sook, soon steps into the vacant job. By the midpoint of the film, all four members of Ki-woo’s family are working for the Parks. Their employers have no idea that they are all related, or even previously connected. At night, the family retreats to their basement apartment and howls over their good fortune; in scamming the Parks, they have grown closer than ever. Up to this point, Parasite is essentially a feel-good film.
And yet there are signs that something is wrong. In order to land their cushy jobs, the family had to displace other people. One night, when the Parks have gone out of town for a camping trip, and Ki-woo and his family are reveling in the empty mansion, Moon-gwang returns. She won’t stop ringing the doorbell. She’s left something in the basement, she says, and she just needs five minutes to retrieve it. Eventually, Chung-sook lets her in. What happens next is a bombshell that I won’t spoil, but it immediately becomes clear that Bong is up to something far more radical than a family comedy. The film begins to melt between genres, swerving into violence, becoming a disaster-fueled action film, then a classical tragedy.
Ki-Woo and his family find themselves in the position of having their own parasites, whom they must fend off if they want to keep their lowly but coveted positions. Meanwhile, a hard rain in Seoul turns to a flash flood, which leaves their basement home uninhabitable. Homeless and on the verge of being exposed, each member of the family grows increasingly desperate to hold on to their small chunk of the good life.
The poor family that wanted to come out of the dark now sees the ugly calculation of wealth. The family that felt so smug and ensconced in their gated home learns that terror had been living underneath them all along. Prosperity, at least as things stand, is shown as a zero-sum game. Like Jordan Peele’s Us, Parasite is split between a favored above-ground world and a brutal subterranean realm; and as in Peele’s film, those who live below can only get out by switching places with a more fortunate counterpart.
But unlike Us, Parasite isn’t a supernatural fable, and it has a subtle arc. At first, the audience is led to cheer on a family as they pull themselves up by the bootstraps; it is an impossible mission, and you long for the underdogs to pull off their heist. Bong spends the rest of the film showing why they will never succeed—that, however ingenious their schemes, they don’t stand a chance against larger systems of inequality and oppression. What starts out as a fantasy becomes a family’s struggle with their place in a global framework designed to keep them down. They realize that getting out of the basement will require more than a few agile maneuvers. It would require total and complete revolution—a realization we rarely see represented on screen.
In a scene late in the film, Ki-woo wades through his family’s flooded apartment and chooses to rescue one thing: the scholar’s rock. He clutches the slab to his chest, as if a hopeful metaphor can save his family from ruin. But Bong refuses to tie the story up so simply. The game is rigged, and it is global. The judges at Cannes have begun to acknowledge this—the same dynamic is playing out in Sweden, Japan, and South Korea, and will keep spreading as the climate changes and wealth is concentrated in fewer hands. That it is happening is not news; that directors are taking on the crushing pressures of capital is worth celebrating. Even in $10,000 gowns.