This South Korean film won the prestigious Palme d’Or prize in May, beating out a Tarantino favorite at the Cannes Film Festival. Its general topic is inequality, which is trending worldwide these days. It may find an audience in the US, but its numbers worldwide — mostly in South Korea but also in Europe and Asian markets — are relatively much greater.
The writer/director is Bong Joon-ho, whose last film, Snowpiercer, was a post-apocalyptic battle between the haves and have-nots who are last surviving humans.
This movie’s plot involves two families. The Kims and their son and daughter live in a stink-bug infested urban apartment whose windows look out on drunks pissing in the street. They don’t have jobs, but they get by doing side work and using the proximity of their neighbors’ routers to connect their cellphones with the internet.
The wealthy family are the Parks, who live in a big, beautiful home on a hill. The father has an important job doing something, and the mother manages the house with the help of a housekeeper. There’s nothing wrong with the Parks, exactly, but they are more than a little credulous.
When a college-student friend of the Kims’ son alerts him to an opportunity to work as an English tutor for the Parks’ daughter, he and his sister forge the school documents he needs to get the job. Later the Kims’ daughter talks her way into the house as an art counselor to the Parks’ nine-year-old-son; after a little googling, she explains to Mrs. Park that the boy has much in common with 1980s primitivist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
In short order, Ma and Pa Kim displace the Parks’ housekeeper and chauffeur, and the family’s future looks good. The comedy-of-manners setup is complete. But can it last?
The answer is no. It turns out that two other desperate people have been depending on the Parks, and when those two figure out what the Kims have done, they are not willing to take the situation sitting down. Events continue in an increasingly tense and frightening manner that leads to an almost operatic climax featuring kitschy American toys of the sort I haven’t seen in the US for many years. Then comes a resolution that viewers may or may not find convincing.
Film critics perhaps are not keen observers economic situations, and it shows in scribblings about this film.
— The plot … “keeps the finger of blame pointed firmly towards the systematic failings responsible for putting the Kims in the position they’re in. . . .” — except, really, it doesn’t except. There is no discussion of any “systematic” anything. There is a family that is rich and comfortable and another family that is poor for some reason but is also resourceful at exploiting opportunities.
— “Wealth buys you out of the social contract—the need to behave a certain way, to tolerate others. Poverty imposes more rules, limitations and boundaries that if unchecked, will suffocate. There is conflict in this: The wealthy become acutely aware of the inconvenience of empathy. The poor laugh darkly at those who plan for the future.”
This generalization may have some truth, but it’s not a truth reflected in this film. There is no discussion of the sources of the Park family’s wealth. The relationships between Parks and Kims seem straightforward, without condescension on the one side or resentment on the other. The Kims do not “laugh darkly at those who plan for the future.”
The only hint comes when the nine-year-old Park son who observes that all the Kims smell the same, perhaps because of their basement apartment — this makes the Kims worry that the Parks will figure that their household helpers are relatives and not four independent contractors who are working in the Park family home.
— “Suffice to say, the wealthy in any country survive on the labor of the poor, whether it’s the housekeepers, tutors, and drivers they employ, or something much darker. (Papa) Kim’s family will be reminded of that chasm and the cruelty of inequity in ways you couldn’t possibly predict.”
Yes, the “cruelty of inequity” comes up in the climactic scene, but if it were a major theme of the story one would expect a talented filmmaker like Joon-ho to have developed it much earlier in the plot.