They have this smell, the underground people. They live in half-basements partially exposed to the street, in filthy neighborhoods where bugs crawl over the kitchen table and the toilet is liable to erupt. These ghetto dwellers try to climb out of the ditch they were born into, to the blessed heights where the rich people live, but the game is rigged and they’ll probably fall right back into their hole again.
The clever, suspenseful Parasite, from Korea’s much-acclaimed director Bong Joon-Ho (Snowpiercer), is on roughly the same satiric wavelength as Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Jordan Peele’s Us. (This week it is playing at the New York Film Festival ahead of a theatrical release on October 11.) Bong considers the plight of a family from the literal underclass that, after a guest brings them a good-luck stone, starts to plot a path out of the gutter. The young man of the house, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), is asked by a friend who is leaving the country to take his place as the tutor to a cute high-school girl, Da-hye (Jung Ziso). The young fellow isn’t even a college student, much less a trained tutor, but he floats along on the deception to see how far he can take it.
This turns out to be quite far: By spinning an interlocking web of scams, he manages to get not only himself but his father, mother, and sister hired to work in the household of a corporate tycoon. The guttersnipes have outfoxed the plutocrats, for once. But should the lower-class family’s scheme be uncovered, they’ll be ruined. They’re posing as four unrelated people who just happened to get hired as tutor, art therapist, driver, and housekeeper by the rich family. As they marvel on their changed circumstances, the characters keep making note of how “metaphorical” their situations are. Ya think? Bong is more frisky than angry with his idea, at least for most of the film, and a bit of droll comedy makes his harsh class-war take palatable.
Parasite, which captured this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, raises some of the same class questions as last year’s winner, Shoplifters, a Japanese film by Hirokazu Kore-eda about a desperate family of schemers living in squalor but told in an idiom of naturalistic drama rather than bringing in genre elements, as Parasite unexpectedly does. As these films tend to be, Parasite is fundamentally misconceived, pressing a notion of good fortune being randomly bestowed rather than being closely linked with merit, as it is in the real world. The rich dupes in Parasite spend their time luxuriating in their gorgeous surroundings or shopping, but we never see them working. Yet if Korea is anything like the U.S., it’s the richest folk who work the hardest. And Ki-woo’s family is so bright and resourceful that it’s hard to believe that until the good-luck stone comes into their lives, the only work any of them can find is folding pizza boxes. In order to cock a snook at supposed class injustice, artists like Bong have to fundamentally misrepresent what’s going on.
Still, though Parasite isn’t at all subversive (diluted Marxism having played a leading role in the thinking and art of cultural elites for more than a century), Bong takes the story in some surprising and intriguing directions. Like Marx, he rails against a society where there is in-fighting among lower orders who live in a state of false consciousness about the true source of their misery. Yet just as Shoplifters conceded that its low-class antiheroes were actually horrible people, Parasite is fairly kind to the upper crust, portraying the rich as sweet if slightly daft people. Far from being melodramatically schematic, it leaves some ambiguity around the edges, raising questions it doesn’t necessarily claim to be able to answer. Nor does it veer off in such a silly direction as Peele’s Us does.
In Parasite, everything goes back to that smell; the small boy from the affluent family is the first to identify it. The poor family initially think it must be their laundry detergent that could unmask them, and resolve to wash their clothes with different brands of soap, but the truth is that living in a slum where all sorts of humiliations get visited upon them has coated them with a funk like body odor — losers’ musk. The rich folk in the film gag on the scent when they’re stuck in a car with the slum dwellers, so it’s really there. But as befits a film that keeps telling us it’s being “metaphorical,” you could consider the trope in other ways. In America, a film such as this would make the underclass characters black, and being groaningly reductionist would please both race-obsessed critics and audiences who like to be clearly told which side they’re supposed to root for. In societies where everybody is the same race, though, can there really be a miasma of failure that scuttles people’s chances to succeed? Substitute “culture” for “odor” and the film takes on a different subtext.