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Fear and Folly in South Korea

Parasite is the most commercially successful Palme d’Or winner ever

In Parasite – Bong Joon-ho’s blackly comic Korean satire on the intersecting lives of rich and poor – the nature of modern poverty announces itself with the words: “We’re screwed – no more free wi-fi!” Frustratingly, the impoverished, energetic Kim family have been locked out of their neighbours’ account with a password. The only way they can secure another stray connection is by crouching beside their grubby toilet while holding the phone up at an awkward angle.

Uncomfortable positions are clearly nothing new for the Kims, a family of four at the wrong end of a string of failed business ventures: a bust chicken shop, a clapped-out cake shop. The wi-fi matters so much because WhatsApp is the conduit to the precarious jobs that keep the family afloat, such as Mrs Kim’s intermittent gig constructing pizza boxes, badly. In the “semi-basement” in which they live, with ground-level at eye-level, they are vulnerable to all forms of incursion: the “stink-bugs”, the smoke from the street fumigation man who comes to spray the stink-bugs, the town drunk who regularly urinates outside their window. There is no refuge from the rest of the world.

But the Kims don’t give up: atop their fast-fraying safety-net, they are constantly on the alert for opportunity – and one unexpectedly arrives for the son of the family, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) with a job as English tutor for the naïve daughter of a rich family, the Parks. Before long, Ki-woo finds ways to shoehorn the entire family into the Parks’ employ, after a few ruthless tricks to see off existing members of staff. Dad, Kim ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) becomes the chauffeur; Mum, Chung-sook (Jang Hyae-jin), the housekeeper; and Ki-woo’s sister Ki-eong (Park So-dam) the “art therapist” to the Parks’ bored and restless little boy.

The Kims don’t ask for our pity: they’re not victims but survivors, and we quickly come to understand that, in their world, scruples are just another luxury item. What unfolds thereafter combines elements of thriller and farce with a razor-sharp dissection of the layered dynamics between employer and employee, rich and poor.

In the Parks, the director skewers all the reflexes and follies of the wealthy: the respectful credulousness in the face of over-charging “experts”, the unshakeable belief in the troubled genius of their own children, the helpless reliance on “staff” and the visceral revulsion at disease or poverty. The Kims pick up on all these things quickly and instinctively, and between them they start to play the rich folks like a violin.

Parasite does for basements what Jane Eyre did for attics.

Park So-dam’s performance as the Kim daughter is a particular joy, masquerading as an “art therapist” while imperiously citing pseudo-psychology to justify “teaching” without parental scrutiny. So too is that of Song Kang-ho, a compellingly watchable star of Korean cinema, as the Kim patriarch, silkily hooking the Parks into hiring his wife with a yarn about a made-up “membership service” which supplies head-hunted “help” to a hand-picked elite clientele. There are shades of the Bernie Madoff investment scam, in which well-off clients were reassured by believing it was a towering privilege just to be admitted.

The Parks are being duped, but – as the film careers on – our sympathy for them dwindles rather than increases: their politeness veneers a kind of quietly steely selfishness. Although the immaculately groomed Mrs Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) is gently spoken, she moves in a bubble of anxious entitlement, and Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyun) is perpetually alert to the danger of an employee “crossing the line” into over-familiarity. He talks often, and queasily, of his chauffeur’s smell, the aroma of a poor neighbourhood which becomes an olfactory offence in a rich man’s house.

Bong Joon-ho proves a master of tension: the threat of the Kims’ unmasking laces the action, but also the uneasy sense of a much greater social collision on its way. Parasite does for basements what Jane Eyre did for attics: both contain humiliated, highly combustible forces that cannot be suppressed indefinitely. The cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo elegantly turns dwellings into metaphors, as the Kims’ dimly-lit semi-basement – cramped, crowded and hung with drying socks – plays home to the constant struggle that society pushes out of sight. In contrast, the Parks’ house – spacious, slick, flooded with light – has orderly good taste on permanent parade, but also contains its menacing secrets.

Parasite is tightly locally observed yet universally applicable. It could be set in many different societies and eras, and quite possibly will be, but any re-make will find it hard to live up to this glinting South Korean fusion of wit, pace, visual style and deep disturbance. Its biting satire leaves room for no more than a trace of pathos, but you don’t really miss it: this film has a chilly little heart, but an unforgettably perceptive eye. And its title leaves one asking, just as it subtly intends – which family are truly the parasites?