This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Sally Jane Black’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
It's frustrating to watch movies by Bong Joon-ho. He comes close sometimes, but he never quite nails it when it comes to class consciousness.
This film captures conflict between the working class and the bourgeoisie, but the essence of the relationship between the two is never made explicit, never truly captured. Instead of focusing on the basic economic exploitation that is universally true in every capitalist society, the film focuses on the treatment and perception of workers by the rich. There are moments that come so close to getting it right, but they fail to go the next step and make it clear.
You might think that "close" should be applauded considering how many films don't even manage that, and there's some value to that. But the line it fails to cross is one of the most important political distinctions there is, and failing to cross is the difference between reform and revolution, between principled and liberal, between fighting back and just fucking whining.
The key missing piece is understanding surplus value. Without understanding that the core exploitation to capitalism, to the relationship between worker and boss, is that the worker produces the wealth (directly or indirectly) and the boss takes it while doing nothing (or in the case of the petty bourgeois, not enough to justify this theft). Because of this act of cruel exploitation, we workers are left with breadcrumbs (see the family in the basement) and the bosses live in luxury. Were we workers able to control the company and the money created by our labor, that money could and would be used for the betterment of our lives through public services (healthcare, education, etc.) and communal property.
There are hints of that here, especially with our friend in the basement worshiping Mr. Park for providing for him (without even knowing he exists), but it's not explicit. The metaphor is only clear to those who are already class conscious. The conning of the Park family is shown with a cold remove; the film finds almost no sympathy for anyone. Without that, it feels as if the filmmaker is implying a level playing field. (This in and of itself is better than trying to make us sympathize with the rich exploiter class, BUT.) But the playing field is not level. Acts of theft against the rich are not unjustified; they are not exploitation. They are a just response to the trillions they have stolen from the working class. The biggest flaw in the plan of the Kim family is that it was strategically unsound.
The point is, the film fails to capture the essence of injustice at the heart of capitalism. This failure leaves the film's themes squarely in the realm of liberal moralism; the justification for killing Mr. Park is derived from his attitude toward Mr. Kim. While the bourgeoisie's attitude toward the working class is repugnant, often callous, usually demeaning, and worthy of a response rooted in righteous anger, when you try to insert ethics into class warfare, you inevitably turn it into a subjective, individualist quagmire. Mr. Kim was justified in killing Mr. Park because Mr. Park is a parasite whose role is to subjugate and exploit the working class. He is our enemy because his role is to harm us. Mr. Kim's failure is killing Mr. Park in a context and a manner that did not further the class struggle, not in committing murder.
Killing a member of the bourgeoisie is an act of self-defense for the working class. The film doesn't even come close, really, to capturing that truth.
What we get, then, is two families the film could arguably be viewing as parasites. It doesn't matter which you think it is, nor which the filmmaker thinks it is. All that matters is that this failure to be clear and objective does not serve the working class; it merely confuses things and makes viewers feel special for liking a prestige film with some edgy leanings.
It's no surprise, then, that the film then fails on so many other levels when it comes to a political statement. The unnecessary and disturbing pedophilia subplot (which is never addressed nor commented on in any meaningful way) serves no purpose but to make the working class protagonist unlikable (thus eradicating the film's chances of ever being class conscious) and characterize a child in a sexual way. The commentary on North Korea could be argued to be unreliable, given that it comes out of the mouths of characters who are quintessential bootlickers, but since the U.S. media has almost completely drowned out alternative views on the DPRK, that unreliability is lost on most viewers. Instead, it just seems like a gross moment of chauvinism at best and chauvinistic humor at worst. The fucked up use of native peoples' cultural aesthetics (or the stereotypical portrayals thereof) is bizarre, racist, and uncommented upon by the film. Yes, it's the cruel, exploitative rich ruling class playing pretend, but the behavior is never called out within the context of the film. And in the end, two of the female characters are dead so we can watch the men angst about it--and then we don't get even that much. They become props in the drama of men, as usual.
So. The film has moments of stunning cinematography. The barrier between rich and poor lit in orange, infernal light. The good luck charm stone at the bottom of a stairwell, a shot carefully constructed in near monochrome. Moments of composition that manage to create suspense or humor. It's effective at visual spectacle. But to what end? A misanthropic diatribe that only distracts from the truth. What a contemptible mess.