Deserving its Oscar for originality and quality in all aspects, this black satire which takes Hitchcock to a new level, is not only humorous and tense or menacing by turns but also a telling indictment of the social divisions in modern South Korea and by extension most other societies as well.
The Kim family live in a grim bug-ridden basement flat with a drab view from their high level window enlivened only by a persistent drunk who likes to urinate outside. They earn an uncertain living folding pizza boxes and are heavily penalised if the folds are in the wrong places. Not surprisingly, college-age but non-studying son Ki-Woo jumps at the chance to replace a friend who is off to study in the States, by taking on the role of English tutor to a girl belonging to the wealthy Park family.
Gullible in their life of complacent ease, the Parks live in a striking hill-top mansion designed by a famous architect, with a lawn surrounded by fabulous greenery, a bubble of privilege sealed from the outside world by walls and secure entrances. One thing leads to another, so that with a bit of streetwise guile and deceit, including the pretence that they are unrelated, Kim’s sister and parents manage to gain employment as family servants, replacing the previous staff. A slight flaw in all this is that, with such ability, one wonders why the Kims cannot get decent employment by honest means, except that, as the father points out, “there are five hundred applicants for every driver’s job”.
The Kims cannot believe their luck in being able to milk the Parks, “only nice because they are rich”, of some of their wealth. Which family is in fact more parasitic? It is unclear how Mr. Park has gained his money, and his wife seems pampered and idle, with their two children well on the way to ending up the same. Their small son is the first to pick up clues that something is amiss, but partly because his behaviour is so dysfunctional the adults fail to notice.
Since the director cleverly gets us on the side of the surprisingly likeable Kims, and their employers are very happy with the arrangement, it seems a pity that it cannot continue indefinitely. However, clearly, good fortune based on such a shaky foundation of lies cannot last, although the way in which it is shattered is certainly unexpected.
As “things fell apart”, I began to feel that the film was losing its way, seeming likely to culminate in a kind of Shakespearean-style tragedy, until it took yet another unpredictable twist. By the end, plausibility no longer seems to matter: the situation can be seen as an allegory, or as Ki-Woo would say, a “metaphor” that lingers in one’s mind. What really drives people over the edge is not so much lack of material goods, but lack of respect.