I write under the assumption you’ve seen the movie, so plot points and characters are referenced, but not explained or detailed. Yes, yes! Spoilers abound… or, as I like to call them, “Post-viewing meaning enhancers.” Do yourself a favor and DO NOT read about this movie before you see it. Thank me later.
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“Wow! It’s so metaphorical!” Ki woo says, ominously, holding the “Landscape Type” rock in his hand.
Many reviewers cackle that Ki-woo “misuses” the word metaphorical. I don’t think he does. From the moment Ki-woo breaks the fourth wall with that comment, effectively telling the audience to pay attention to this element, we’ve got a Chekhov’s Gun on our hands.
Playwright Anton Chekhov said if you introduce a gun in Act 1, you’d damn well better fire it in Act 2. Or words to that effect. (I’ve stopped trying to accurately cite cliches, since the internet usually has six stories behind each one.)
The rock will be a metaphor, or three.
The rock is an “auspicious” gift to the Kims by Ki-woo’s college friend Min. These “landscape type” rocks (also referred to later as a “Scholar’s Stone”) are believed to bring material wealth to a family.
Is “landscape rock” meant literally? A metaphor for landscaping — pruning, grooming, shaping what you have, to make it look better and more attractive to a buyer? The family certainly “landscapes” Ki-woo’s resume, to get him access to the tutoring position in the Park family’s meticulously landscaped and architected home. “I don’t consider this wrong, or a crime,” he tells his father as he heads to his interview with forged documents. He’s just doing what he has to do to survive.
There is a recurring theme of creating deceptive appearances — to achieve financial goals and survive — through the film. Material wealth does flow as all four Kim family members scam their way into the Park’s employ by the middle of the movie.
As each new scam is implemented, we see the rock between and behind characters during planning sessions. It is as a metaphor for “plan” that the rock is most fully consistent. Very early in the movie — even before the rock arrives — Kim Choong-Sook (the wife/mother) asks Mr. Kim “Well, what’s your plan?” for paying off bills and getting phone and electricity re-established. He has none. Mr. Kim is chaos and impulse, foil to “planner” son Ki-woo.
But Ki-Woo, in concert with sister Ki Jong, is never without a plan. They “enact a plan” to get more members of the family hired. “Have we already moved to that phase of our plan?” Ki woo asks his sister, as they move on firing the driver? Ki-Woo Directs his father’s performance as part of a detailed plan to make the Park’s incumbent housekeeper, Moon-Gwang, appear to have Tuberculosis. Nothing is to happen by chance. During the deluge, Moon Gwang returns to the house, and Ki-woo blurts, “That’s not part of the plan.”
After the family escapes, in the deluge, Ki-woo struggles to reassemble a plan. Mr. Kim assures Ki-Woo that he (paragon of chaos and whim) has a plan. That calms Ki woo, allowing him to move forward. They enter their sewage flooded apartment. Once in the apartment, unable to stop the flood coming through the window they left open, shocked by a downed wire, the family starts salvaging what they can. Ki-Woo retrieves the stone, then escapes to the refugee gymnasium.
Father and son lie side by side on cots, amid hundreds of other displaced persons. Ki-Woo, arms wrapped around his stone, says to his father: “So what’s your plan?” This is the fulcrum moment of the movie. “The best plan is no plan,” Ki Taek says, exhausted. “Look at all these people here. They had plans. Do you think they planned on being here? No, the best plan is no plan, because it never fails.”
He then asks his son. “Why are you still holding that rock? Ki-woo says, “I don’t know. It keeps following me. It clings to me.” Kevin/ki-Woo cannot give up on the idea that planning is his way up and out of the lower-class, semi-basement life. And now that plan is endangered by two unplanned people restrained in the Park family’s surprise bunker.
Knowing that they have to tie up those loose ends, to retain their foothold in the upper class household, Ki-woo takes the rock with him to Da Song’s Trauma party. He plans to… what? Bash in the brains of the two basement dwellers? We don’ know what his plan is, but as he descends to the Jungian shadow bunker, his unformulated, weakly grasped plan — the rock — slips out of his hands, out of control. Once again Ki -woo finds himself face to face with the unexpected and no plan can save him. In fact, he ends up being caught and then beaten on the head by his plan.
Head crushed, the rock becomes an afterthought until father and son communicate in the Epilogue. Ki-Woo writes to his father, “I have started a plan. A fundamental plan…” We hear these words as he places the rock back into the stream from whence it was plucked. We know he no longer clings to the value of a plan, and everything we hear after that point is fantasy.
Ki-Woo sketches a “plan” for allowing his father to escape the basement bunker, but it is truly fantasy. He describes repeating the exact same system and circumstances that have created the class structure entombing his father in the bunker, consigned to stay invisible (and odorless), sneaking upstairs to steal what life he can, grateful for the mere opportunity to be able to survive on undetected pilferage from his wealthy lord’s refrigerator.
Ki woo says he will will work hard, make lots of money and buy the house, and then his father “…can come out into the sunlight. All you have to do is walk up the stairs.” As if everything to this point does not rebel against this fantasy that all it requires for the poor to pull themselves up is mere effort; that there aren’t human forces seeking the exact opposite, not to mention the odd natural, unexpected disaster to upset the plan; the fantasy that their station in life is their fault, not their fate and historical inheritance.