- Run Time
- 2 hours and 12 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Did I set my heart on making big money
or worship at the bank?
Did I boast about my wealth,
show off because I was well-off?
Better is a little that the righteous person has
than the abundance of many wicked
The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.
Korean director-writer Bong Joon Ho, whose 2013 sci-fi film Snowpiercer included criticism of our society’s sharp class division, includes the latter in his horror genre film about three families and their struggle for wealth. This is the first South Korean film to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes this past year, so it is obvious that this is not your usual scare flick.
At first, we are led to believe this is to be an amusing con artist tale in which a poor family seeks to raise their economic status by hook or crook. The film opens with a view of a slum street through the window of a basement apartment. It is the kind of street where the homeless loiter while others scurry about on errands. One drunken man habitually urinates just outside the window.
The camera pans around to show how decrepit and disorderly the home is. Its occupants are Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik), a high school graduate unable to afford college; his artistic sister, Ki-jung (Park So Dam); their blustery father, Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho); and sharp-witted mother, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin). The teenagers steal a Wi-Fi signal for their cellphones by holding them high above their heads as they move about their crowded apartment. The family ekes out a living by earning a few pennies for each of the pizza boxes they clumsily fold together. They are so inept that the store owner chastises them for their slipshod work.
Ki-woo’s best (and far better off) friend Min-hyuk visits the family, presenting them with a ceremonial rock that is supposed to impart wealth and prosperity to the family. He is leaving for a period of college studies overseas, so he suggests that Ki-woo apply to be the replacement in his English-tutoring job and watch over the girl until he returns to marry her when she is old enough. Ki-woo protests that because he has no college training, he is not qualified, but his friend says he will vouch for him. His sister Ki-jung employs her artistic talents to Photoshop phony college credentials for him.
The pupil is the teenage girl Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso), whose well-off family lives in a gated, starkly modernistic home designed and inhabited by a famous Korean architect. The street Ki-woo walks up is the opposite of his crowded street, totally empty except for himself. No one except servants would be seen walking in such a neighborhood where even short trips are made in chauffeur-driven cars. When housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung Eun) admits him, the boy can scarcely conceal his awe, its large rooms with their marble floors appearing to him like a palace. On one of the walls hangs a framed magazine article about the girl’s father, Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun), a millionaire owner of a tech company. Once he is accepted, Ki-woo quickly wins the confidence of both pupil and her mother Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong). He soon sees an opportunity to promote the fortunes of his family members. Da-hye’s troubled younger brother, Da-song (Jung Hyeon Jun), seems to possess a great talent for art, so when Ki-woo claims that his sister is a well qualified art teacher, Ki-jung is invited for an interview. The gullible Yeon-kyo is taken in by the girl’s pseudo analysis of her son’s artwork, the little boy’s painting supposedly revealing factors about his disturbing behavior. As with her brother, Ki-jung is soon a regular visitor to the mansion, thoroughly enjoying its many luxuries.
It isn’t long before the faithful family chauffeur is undermined by the pair so that their father is brought in as the poor man’s replacement. Just as brother and sister have concealed their relationship, so do they keep hidden the fact that the new driver is their father. Last to go is the faithful housekeeper Moon-gwang, her expulsion being the most poignant in that she has served in the home ever since it was built, she carefully learning to adapt to the needs and fancies of each of the owners of the house. Both her housekeeping and cooking had been impeccable, so she is deeply disturbed at being thrust out so unexpectedly when the interlopers exploit her allergy to peaches. Of course, I need not name her replacement, even though Chung-sook had been a sloppy homemaker and an inept cook.
Everything seems to be going well for this parasitical family. Never had they lived so well, their employers totally unaware of their schemes. Park Da-hye is beginning to replace her old beau Min in her affections with her new tutor, and Ki-woo seems to have no compunctions in betraying his absent friend.
Everything changes the moment that former housekeeper Moon-gwang shows up when the owners have gone off on a camping trip. When the employees let her in, she reveals a secret that is as shocking to us as to the latter. Fear fills house, and matters descend into madness and mayhem that drives the last third of the film into a totally different direction. Whereas the first is a light tale of clever connivery, the last is a violent horror tale of irony—involving the rock that Min had given the family in the belief it brought good luck and fortune to the owners—and tragic regret. The ending has to be one of the most bizarre you have seen this year—and it too involves one of the characters striving to rise in life to reach an unlikely goal.
The film is filled with dark humor, such as the early on incident in which the family, in their dreary basement apartment, spot a fumigator coming down the street. They start to close the window. “Wait,” says father Ki-taek, “Free extermination.” This windfall proves disastrous as everyone starts choking from the fumes.
After all, four have secured employment from the Parks, Ki-taek says of Mrs. Park “She’s rich but still nice.” His wife Chung-sook contradicts him, “She’s nice because she’s rich.” This humorous exchange is amusing, but also raises the serious question about niceness, or kindness, being dependent upon affordability.
The Parks, whose living room with its expensive art objects displayed like in a museum, certainly possess a sense of entitlement and class awareness. Mr. Park expects his chauffeur to drive smoothly, turning so as not to upset his coffee. He speaks about servants “crossing the line,” implying that the family’s kindness has definite limits. Mrs. Park is a doting parent, catering to their pampered little boy’s every whim. The family lives blissfully in their bubble of wealth, one that will be burst by an alien world that insists on impinging upon theirs. Historically minded viewers might think of the French or Russian revolutions in which the underclass finally rose up and destroyed the upper class that had spent its days in frivolous living, intentionally ignoring the plight of those at the bottom of society. Director-writer Bong Joon Ho continues to demonstrate that he can take any genre and develop a film that will disturb viewers and make them make think about the real world.
This review will be in the January issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.