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The Struggle Is Thrill

Downtonparasite
Neon; top right, Focus Features; bottom left, Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features

MOVIE REVIEW
Parasite/Downton Abbey (2019)

With “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho gives the “Upstairs, Downstairs” premise a long-overdue update. Although the film is unmistakably current and relevant, the myriad uncanny parallels between it and the contemporaneous big-screen installment of “Downton Abbey” are impossible to ignore. So glaring are their similarities, the fact that no one has pointed them out already must have something to do with the racial cognitive dissonance of the critical mass failing to see Asians in this context.

In Mr. Bong’s film, a nuclear family of four unemployed gets an unexpected lifeline. The son, Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), lands a private tutoring gig, for which he isn’t exactly qualified, with an affluent ménage, all thanks to the referral by a friend on his way to study abroad. Ki-woo then immediately sets in motion a plan to get his nuclear kin hired at the same household: his sister (Park So-dam) as an art teacher, his father (Song Kang-ho) as the chauffeur and his mother (Jang Hye-jin) as the housemaid. Far from lazy and unmotivated, these jobless folks are so driven and enterprising that they will do whatever it takes to get work: scheming, plotting, lying and throat-cutting to displace the incumbent house staff.

Turf skirmishes among the working class aren’t exactly new for fans of “Downton Abbey.” As far back as the first season, viewers saw tirewoman Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and first footman Barrow (Rob James-Collier) backstabbing their confreres. In the brand-new motion picture, this war is waged between the Downton staff and the royal servants accompanying the visiting King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James). In both “Downton” and “Parasite,” the ruling class remains blissfully ignorant of the jostling for position taking place right underneath them. Both climax with the working class rudely disrupting high society functions.

Just as “Downton” fawns over the genteel noblese of its ruling class, the downstairs machinations are also posited as jolly good fun. When the royal butler (David Haig) and chef (Philippe Spall) threaten to undermine the hard prep work of Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and company for the royal visit, the Downton staff conspires to lock their rivals in their guest rooms so they can have the rare privilege and honor of serving the king and queen themselves. After all, the saintly lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is the chief conspirator. Besides, we’re already emotionally invested in the Downton team.

By contrast, the power struggle taking place in “Parasite” is literal blood sport. Forgoing formalities, the working class in Mr. Bong’s film often appears to be on equal footing with the upstairs denizens. But that surficial egality fails to mask the greater class divide. The working class now resides not just merely downstairs, but as ghostly figures in an underground bunker where they cease to exist as far as the ruling class is concerned. When the Kim family wakes up with the rest of the city in a makeshift emergency shelter in a school gym after excess flooding displaces them from their homes, the unaffected and unaware employers are busy throwing an impromptu birthday party.

Mr. Bong also expands the staircase motif far beyond the modernist mansion at its heart. In one scene, where Ki-woo, his sister and his father leave the palatial estate and head home amid the storm, they literally must descend seemingly endless flights of stairs to get there, a basement now flooded with overflowing sewage. Lee Ha-jun, the production designer, helped build the two houses and their respective neighborhoods, with the Kim family’s humble abode constructed in a tank specifically for the flooding scene. The staircase motif is deliberate and purposeful.

The “Downton” movie eschews any commentaries on class warfare, gender equality, technology and the two World Wars of the TV series, leaving only a comedy of manners in the Masterpiece-on-PBS Tradition of Quality. For those keeping score, the film amnestically glosses over the secretarial aspirations of assistant cook Daisy (Sophie McShera). “Parasite,” on the other hand, shows both a ruling class undeserving of its wealth and a working class, despite determination, ingenuity and ruthlessness, still facing a steep climb.

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