When​ a film begins in a basement and ends in the mountains, we know that a spatial metaphor or two may be in the offing – as in Bong Joon-ho’s earlier work The Snowpiercer (2013), where social classes are marked by their location (front and back) on a long train, and defined by a grim and nasty talk (given by Tilda Swinton with a Yorkshire accent) about who is the head and who are the feet. But when in Bong’s new film, Parasite, one of the leading characters, faced with an object or a situation he likes a lot, keeps saying (at least in the subtitles), ‘It’s so metaphorical,’ we’re not at all sure what’s in the offing, or if there is an offing. What is this joke about?

Whatever it’s about, the film has been much appreciated. Parasite has received lots of good word of mouth, plenty of critical attention and six Oscar nominations (best director, best editing, best production design, best original screenplay, best international picture and best picture). The joke often goes dark and gets more than a little messy, and as in Bong’s earliest films, such as Memories of Murder (2003) and Mother (2009), comedy and slaughter are never far away from each other.

The joke, with all its extensions, is still about class. But it’s also about how predictable our thoughts on the subject are, and there are further distinctions to be made. We quickly begin to feel not that everything is metaphorical, but that metaphors will no longer behave properly, won’t stay figurative. The basement, for example, is only a semi-basement. These are the lower depths, to borrow a phrase about poverty from Gorky (and Renoir and Kurosawa), but there are still lower ones. Literally. We and almost all the characters in the film are surprised to discover a secret cellar, unknown even to the owners of the house it belongs in. This is where the rich might live in the event of a nuclear attack from North Korea. If they knew how to get in, that is.

So we are to think of a politics of fear as well as class, or more precisely perhaps of the jokes and dreams that mask or displace our fear. For me, the high point of this funny, inventive, scary film is the scene – plot details to come in a moment – in which a character threatening to email a compromising photograph to the relevant recipients has a whole family cowering in front of her, holding their hands up while she gives an extravagant comic imitation of a North Korean dictator about to detonate the last bomb in the country’s arsenal. The running joke featuring Native Americans as the source of a favourite fantasy identity of rich South Koreans – teepee, tomahawks, feathers and all – is pretty good too.

The inhabitants of the semi-basement are the Kim family: father, mother, daughter, son, played by Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, Park So-dam, Choi Woo-sik. There are the roguish heroes of the film: desperately poor, charming in their fecklessness, infinitely clever even when they look weary and dopey, and pretty dangerous. It’s hard to relate much of the story without spoiling the movie’s effect, so I’ll tread carefully. The son, called Ki-woo, with the aid of his skilful sister, Ki-jung, forges the diploma that he needs to apply for a job as a private tutor to a rich girl. He hasn’t been to university, but says he will go one day. ‘I just printed out the document a bit early.’ At the end of the movie he is still considering, and still postponing, the possibility.

When it’s time for his job interview he walks up a hill to an architect-designed house and, once through the garden gate, up a long set of steps to the door. The theme of social ascent, or social difference as a landscape, could hardly be more obvious, but we are beginning to get the movie’s idea: not to avoid stereotypes but to keep crashing into them.

Having infiltrated the moneyed family – they are called Park – Ki-woo gets a job at the house for his sister by pretending she is someone he vaguely knows who can act as an ‘art therapist’ for the Parks’ son. The boy has been seeing ghosts and his mother, especially, is worried. Needless to say, the ghost is not a ghost: the boy is just seeing what his parents can’t.

Ki-woo and Ki-jung quickly manage to get the Parks’ housekeeper and driver fired, to be replaced by mother and father Kim, and everything is set for comeuppance or glory as our guesses prefer. The symmetry is rather elegant: two parents and a girl and a boy preying on two parents and a girl and a boy. The rich are not nasty or stupid in this case, just easy to fool, so that being a brilliant con artist almost looks like a form of unemployment. And they do seem to believe that the world exists only for them to pay it to do what they want. The closest they get to having a faint clue about what is happening to them is their realisation that the poor smell different, and that, mysteriously, their new employees smell the same as each other. The Kims’ answer is to get different soaps.

The Parks go off for a weekend’s camping, and the Kims have the posh residence to themselves – they think. They eat everything edible in the house, get wildly drunk and quarrel angrily, then pretend they are pretending. I’ll stop the plot summary here – there are plenty of surprises to come – and say only that the drunken Kims are the people quaking while someone else performs the parody of North Korean foreign policy.

Even the film’s apparent slips are interesting. There are moments when members of the Kim family need some smart new clothes and acquire them. How? Aren’t they supposed to be as poor as anyone could be? There are at least three answers to this question. First, they got them from the wardrobe department of the film’s production company. This is unmetaphorically true but also uninteresting. Second, it doesn’t matter where they got them because this film doesn’t wish to spend its time on quibbles about realism. And finally, we’re better off not learning where they got the clothes – it’s enough to know that the ingenious urban poor of South Korea have ways of getting what they need, so long as it’s not money.

And the mountains? At the end of the film, Ki-taek, the father of the Kim family, takes refuge in the rich folks’ cellar, hiding from the law rather than the violence of another nation. He is wanted for murder, while his son is in the local hills with a pair of binoculars, reading his father’s light-flickering Morse code signals from the house. There is more metaphorical stuff here than I can unscramble, but for now let’s say we are looking at images of desperation, ingenuity, survival and several forms of social and psychological distance.

A little earlier, escaping from the direst situation of all into one that is merely dire – that is, from the threat of exposure as criminals to a flooding of their semi-basement with sewer water – Ki-taek tells the children he has a plan. But the flood – the lesser evil, so to speak – is too much for him. He doesn’t have a plan. ‘You know what kind of plan never fails?’ he says. ‘No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned … There’s no need for a plan. You can’t go wrong with no plans … It doesn’t matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares.’ Ki-woo correctly reads this not as bleak wisdom (or as the movie’s message) but as a sign that his father is in really bad shape. The son continues to plan, to scheme, because in this world believing in your own resourcefulness, even when it doesn’t work, can’t work, is how you stay alive.

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