With Parasite, a horribly delicious black comedy, the South Korean director Bong Joon Ho (Okja) gives us the bits of the upstairs-downstairs dynamic that Downton Abbey scrubbed clean: namely the seething resentments and mutual contempt inherent in the master/servant relationship. Bong’s film is set in modern Korea, the tale of a family of scammers who worm their way into a wealthy household but don’t know when to stop scheming. Using industrial-strength social satire, he strips the veneer off the myth of classlessness, giving an outrageously entertaining instant classic.
Bong has assembled excellent actors. Woo-sik Choi is Kim Ki-woo, a bright kid who can’t afford university fees, so lives at home with his family in a scummy basement flat earning a pittance folding pizza boxes for a local takeaway. The family’s fortunes take a turn for the better when Ki-woo blags a job tutoring English to a tech entrepreneur’s teenage daughter, sulky high-schooler Da-hye (Ji-so Jung). When he arrives for his interview you can see the stab of shame Ki-woo feels, cheeks flushing, as he walks around the family’s modernist architect-designed house. His boss’s wife complacently gives him the job, breezily announcing, “We’ll call you Kevin.”
His feet under the table, Ki-woo cracks a plan to insinuate his entire family into the house. He wangles his unemployed sister Kim Ki-jung (So-dam Park) a job as art therapist to his student’s spoiled little brother – the boy’s mum is convinced his challenging behaviour is the sign of an eccentric genius. All that’s left now is to bring down the housekeeper and chauffeur – and somehow inveigle mum and dad into their roles.
Upstairs and downstairs, each is contemptuous of the other. The rich Parks smugly look down at the hired help. Mr Park (Sun-kyun Lee) complains to his wife that his new driver smells of turnips. And he’s always banging on about the staff “not crossing the line”. Forelock tugging might be a thing of the past, but the modern master likes the help to know their place. On the other side, the Kim family cheerfully con their bosses with not an ounce of guilt. “If I had that much money I’d be nice too,” says Ki-woo’s sister. Director Bong’s sympathies, you suspect, lie with the poverty-stricken Kims rather than the irritating Parks, who’ve got the learned helplessness of the rich, unable even to boil a packet of noodles.
This virtuoso black comedy whips up into a violent slapstick thriller, which perhaps has a few too many loose threads of plot but is always brilliant nasty fun. Underneath the laughs is some unsettling biting social commentary from Bong about social mobility, the lie capitalism feeds us that our future is in our own hands, anyone can make it. Parasite has been a foreign-language hit at the box office in the US and broke the subtitle barrier to pick up six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Naturally, an American version is in the pipeline – a TV adaptation for HBO. But it’s difficult to imagine a remake giving this much malicious enjoyment.