This is just one of the best movies I’ve seen in awhile and the Oscars would be even dumber than they are to deny it.
SUMMARY (Not really any spoilers, but you should still probably go see this cold if you can)
The Kim family, composed of father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), is destitute and stuck working part-time jobs to make ends meet. A friend of Ki-woo’s, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), offers Ki-woo a recommendation to be the English tutor of the daughter of the wealthy Park family, Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so). Ki-woo uses Ki-jeong’s art skills to forge documents saying he’s a university graduate, only for the mother of the Park family, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), to completely ignore them and base her decision almost solely on Min-hyuk’s recommendation, giving him the job. When Yeon-gyo mentions that she wants an art teacher for her son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), Ki-woo claims to know a famous art teacher who is really Ki-jeong. Ki-jeong manages to, in turn, recommend Ki-taek as a driver for the Park patriarch, Dong-ik (Byun Hee-bong), who recommends Chung-sook as a housekeeper. Soon, the entire Kim family deceptively works under the Park family, which only starts to make their differences much more pronounced. Eventually, the Kims make a discovery that leads to a more serious and dire conflict.
Bong Joon-ho, the director of this film, has previously been lauded for films like Mother (seriously, see this film), The Host (see this if you like monster movies), and Snowpiercer (also really good), but this film is the best thing he’s done yet.
In terms of visual storytelling, this movie is superb. Every shot and every performance tells you what is going on even if you don’t pay attention to the dialogue. You could watch this film without subtitles and you would still be able to follow the general story, even if you missed some of the details. The structure of the city in which the film takes place is a simple device, but it works: The Park family lives at the top of a very tall hill in a compound which has a lot of greenery whereas the Kim family lives in a semi-basement at the bottom of the hill. There is repeated dialogue about the fact that the Park family distinguishes the Kim family by their particular smell, which the Kims believe is related to them living in the semi-basement below ground. The film uses this as one of the many metaphors they put forth to discuss how the upper-class really feels about the lower-class.
On the surface, the Park family is generous and kind, but they are always about maintaining “the line” between the rich and poor. The poor can be employees, but never friends or peers. The line is frequently drawn between the upstairs and downstairs, or the front and back of the car. Even the daughter, Da-hye, who seems willing to be romantically involved with people of a lower class, appears to be doing it partially out of rebellion, showing that she is fully aware of the fact that her family views them as lessers. It’s never that the Parks are cruel to the Kims, in fact they pay them quite well, but the gap between the two must be maintained, whether by position or by walls.
One of the things that the movie highlights is that the difference between the wealthy and the poor is that the poor can have all of their upward momentum crushed by a single tragedy, whereas the wealthy never have to contemplate that kind of loss. Mrs. Park is mostly concerned about getting her children good tutors so that they can get into top-level schools or live out their potential as artists, two things that the Kim children couldn’t achieve despite their apparently superior talents. The Kims are more concerned with things like the fact that they can’t afford to get the bugs out of their house and have to rely on public sprayers, or that their apartment can flood if it rains too much. The film subverts the usual tendency to try and portray the antagonists as angelic, by showing them realistically using underhanded tactics to get and maintain their “leg-up.” By showing their circumstances, however, we understand why they feel it to be necessary to do such things.
I will say that, while I don’t want to get into the second half of the film to avoid spoilers, the second half is the tensest hour of film I’ve seen in a long time. It starts off, appropriately, with a fairly comic scene featuring a discussion of the class divide, before descending rapidly into a thriller-movie atmosphere for a while and expanding on the class division theme massively.
One of the aspects of the film that I like most is that it never feels tied down to the conventions of any one particular genre. There are comedy, drama, thriller, and even horror elements and they all fit within the scenes in which they appear. The cinematography, dialogue, and acting are all superior. The themes of the movie, while they were supposedly reflective of the state of South Korea, which has been suffering from a substantial debt crisis since 1997’s Asian Financial Crisis, pretty much work everywhere.
This movie is amazing and everyone should see it.
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