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Korea’s black comedy about class

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A study published last year showed that around half of the top reporters and editors at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal came from the nation’s most elite colleges and universities. This was no surprise to me. In the decade I’ve spent working in and around Washington, D.C., I’ve been surrounded by the American elite: Harvard and Yale graduates, people who attended boarding schools as adolescents, and the sons and daughters of wealthy professionals. I’ve often felt like an alien creature rubbing shoulders with these people. As a child of two immigrants, I’ve inherited a lot of my parents’ anxieties. Even today, I have a hard time spending money because I’m worried about not having it in the future.

But America’s elite carry their own forms of anxiety. Their lives often consist of endless jockeying for credentials and prestige. And because class status in America isn’t always transmitted through intergenerational osmosis, the rich are increasingly anxious for their children. This anxiety can be so extreme that the actress Felicity Huffman, who was caught trying to bribe someone to boost her daughter’s SAT scores, was willing to risk jail time to secure her daughter a place in the meritocratic elite.

The contrasting anxieties of the rich and the poor are the central theme of Parasite, the latest socially conscious black comedy from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Bong is the mind behind such dystopian movies as 2017’s Okja, an animal rights parable, and 2013’s Snowpiercer, a stylish sci-fi thriller about class war. He is, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, one of the best satirists working today.

The protagonists of Parasite are the Kims, a lower-class South Korean family that lives in a subbasement in a poor district in Seoul. Although they live in crushing poverty, the Kims are clever and resourceful — much more so than some of the local rich.

The Kims hatch a plan to outsmart the Parks, a wealthy family that lives in a picturesque modern home in an upscale neighborhood. One by one, the Kims deceive the Parks into hiring them for various lucrative jobs, never giving away that they’re all from the same family. The Kims’ son, Ki-woo, is brought on as an English tutor for the Parks’ daughter after touting his fancy college degree, which he has forged using photo-editing software. Before long, his sister, Ki-jeong, is hired as an art teacher for the Parks’ son, Da-song. His father soon nabs a job as a driver, while his mother becomes the Parks’ housekeeper.

The speed with which the Kims turn themselves into recipients of the Park family’s largess is comical — it had the audience in my theater beside themselves with laughter. But underneath Bong’s comedy is serious commentary about how the poor have to adapt to survive. The Kim family doesn’t have the credentials that South Korea’s upper class thrives on, so they invent them. The stakes are made explicit during a torrential downpour, when the Kims are nearly flooded out of their apartment while the Parks celebrate how the rain improved the weather for Da-song’s posh birthday party. In a society that obsesses over titles and resumes, the Kims’ choice is stark: either tell a few small fibs or live in a slum forever.

But if Parasite were only a tale about how the poor are clever while the rich are gullible, it wouldn’t be half the film that Bong has produced. Even as it depicts the Kims’ struggle to escape the slums, it shows the Parks living with the crushing anxieties of the rich. They must continually perform the rituals necessary to maintain themselves as respectable members of South Korea’s upper class. Da-song is an unruly child, and Mrs. Park spends her days worried to death about his future. It is only by playing on her anxiety that Ki-jeong is able to manipulate her way into a job.

Mr. Park, on the other hand, believes he must use the resources at his disposal to appease all of his children’s whims. He indulges Da-song’s interest in Native Americans by buying him a teepee, bow and arrow, and headdress. When Da-song wants to spend the night camping in his teepee in the backyard, both parents resign themselves to an uncomfortable night watching over him from the living room. Simply saying “no” to their child’s desires, as poorer parents are accustomed to doing, seems to be out of the question. But the Parks’ preoccupation with their own family’s status blinds them to the plight of those who work under them. They are quick to fire staff, and Mr. Park continually refers to the bad smell he picks up from Koreans who ride the subway.

Bong’s film is careful to avoid neatly sorting his characters into heroes and villains. “All the characters in Parasite are in the gray zone,” he told one interviewer. “They’re all nice to some degree and bad to some degree. And I think that’s closer to reality.” This moral complexity is brought home in the film’s second half, which takes Parasite from a simple Marxist allegory to something much richer. As the Kims begin to taste power, we see them become increasingly antisocial and even violent. During a pivotal moment, they are presented with an opportunity to aid a fellow member of the working class. But with their newly obtained positions at the Park household, their generosity all but disappears. Far from fetishizing the poor, Bong’s film depicts them as just as human as anyone else.

Partisans on both the Left and the Right should see Parasite and think hard about the lessons it’s trying to impart. Too much of American satire is obsessed with criticizing or belittling individual personalities, pretending that we can solve entrenched social problems if only we hurl enough mean-spirited barbs at a particular politician or political party.

Bong, by contrast, understands that most problems are structural in nature. The real villain of Parasite is neither the Park nor the Kim family but the system that forces both into a vicious, zero-sum conflict. And when people have to fight one another, whether for a decent job or for admissions to an elite college, we shouldn’t be surprised when they start to fight dirty.